Saturday, 14 December 2019

Indiana Jones and the Vanishing Trees

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  • President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono  and Harrison Ford meet at the presidential palace in Jakarta (9/10). REUTERS/Setpress/Abror Rizky

    President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Harrison Ford meet at the presidential palace in Jakarta (9/10). REUTERS/Setpress/Abror Rizky

    The people who were angered by Hollywood Actor Harrison Ford's pointed questions on the condition of Indonesia's forests are like hypocrites who won't think twice about taking off their shirts but get outraged when others criticize their bare bodies. But displays of anger, much less threats of deportation, only demonstrate the tragedy of our hopelessness over the chronic mismanagement of our forests.

    Ford, best known for his roles as the adventurer Indiana Jones, interviewed Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan for a documentary film on climate change titled Years of Living Dangerously. The actor-activist visited several places in Indonesia, including the Tesso Nilo National Park in Riau. He also met with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

    The documentary, produced by the Showtime television network, is not a commercial film. By agreeing to be interviewed, the forestry minister and the president must have known it was not going to be a scripted question-and-answer session. They must have anticipated unexpected questions about the good and bad of Indonesian forests. If he saw more of the bad than the bad, well, that's what was on display.

    After he witnessed the severe environmental damage in Tesso Nilo, and having been informed that those responsible were untouched by the law, Ford took his concerns directly to Zulkifli. He repeatedly asked the minister to tell him why not enough had been done about the problem. Later, claiming that Ford had not shown the good manners of a guest and had become angry when he asked questions, Zulkifli expressed his disappointment at the interview, complaining to journalists. Picking up the ball, shortly after, Andi Arief, the president's special staff for Social Assistance and Natural Disasters, appeared on the scene like a hero, threatening Ford with deportation.

    So far Andi's call has not elicited much response. But like it or not, this all goes to show the Forestry Ministry's lack of concern about a crucial fact: the destruction of forests needs firm action. For the smarter public, Ford's question on why the people behind the destruction have not been arrested was not intended as a pressure to take immediate action. But like Ford, we hoped the answer would elicit an explanation over what has actually been stopping such a move.

    And this is where the problem lies. There are many cases of illegal deforestation, but only a few have resulted in legal action – and only a fraction of these cases end up putting the responsible people in jail. Whenever such an issue is raised and not just by Ford the result is always the same: the Forestry Ministry becomes defensive, or gives the same old unsatisfactory explanations.

    Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of the Presidential Unit for Development Supervision and Control (UKP4) has admitted that the government is unable to manage Tesso Nilo. According to data from the Tesso Nilo National Park office, only 20,000 hectares of the original 83,000 hectares of forest area remain intact. Most of it has been converted into oil palm plantations, despite the fact that Tesso Nilo was a pilot project in the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program.

    The documentary film Ford is producing and his penetrating questions, and which will lay Indonesia bare to the world, may be seen as a fit-and-proper test for the Forestry Ministry and its officials. If this does not change the ministry's response to this massive environmental problem, deciding instead to make a fuss over the trivial matter of the questioning, clearly not a single person in that ministry will pass the test. (*)