Thursday last week was a good day for Indonesian forests. Thousands of kilometres south, the Australian government announced a $200 million boost in the fight against deforestation, a move Mr Howard said would cut more greenhouse gases than Australia signing Kyoto.

On the same day, a report co-authored by the UK-based Environment Investigation Agency and Indonesian NGO Telapak was released. Titled The Thousand Headed Snake: Forest Crimes, Corruption, and Injustice in Indonesia, it commends the recent progress made by Indonesian authorities in curtailing illegal logging, but outlines the size of the battle still ahead.

According to the report, it’s a battle that involves the Indonesian judiciary, issues funding and corruption within the military and police, and a black market which funnels an estimated $US4 billion annually into the coffers of “influential timber barons”, men with the means to discourage prosecution. The report begins:

An environmental crime of almost unimaginable scale continues to unfold across Indonesia. Since the late 1990s the country’s forests have been ransacked, with the government acting as little more than a bystander. Vast profits have been accrued by a handful of influential timber barons, which the Indonesian justice system has totally failed to prosecute. As long as the main culprits are at liberty the illegal logging crisis in Indonesia will continue.

Later, The Thousand Headed Snake explains how the conditions that allow for illegal logging are — rather unhelpfully — enshrined in the nation’s law. To eradicate illegal logging in West Papua, the government uses general laws against money-laundering and corruption. Yet:

Such an approach implicitly recognises the fundamental weaknesses of the prevailing forestry law … [T]he law is manifestly unsuited to prosecuting the real beneficiaries of the illegal logging racket – the financiers who fund the logging, the brokers who charter the ships to smuggle timber overseas, and the corrupt officials who turn a blind eye.

Complicating matters is the Indonesian military, which profits from illegal logging. “They get around 30% of their budget from the government, which means they must raise the rest themselves,” Joe Collins of the Australian West Papua Association told Crikey. “Until the Indonesian military are funded totally by the government there is always going to be corruption.”

The entrepreneurial nature of the Indonesian military was further highlighted in December last year, when the New York Times detailed nearly US$20 million in payments to “military and police generals, colonels, majors and captains, and military units” by US mining company Freeport-McMoRan to protect its lucrative gold mine in Papua.

Collins says: “They don’t actually spell it out, but the feeling is that if the mine didn’t pay the military, the military would be more likely to attack the mine. Anyone that goes to West Papua goes back to Indonesia rich. It’s like a colony. Everyone is there to get something out of it.”

In light of this, while commendable, the Howard plan is not about confiscating chainsaws and prosecuting the truckies who are caught hauling logs from West Papua’s forests. It’s actually about taking on the very heart of corruption in Indonesia.

A bold initiative indeed, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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