From: Michael Casey, Associated Press
Published January 9, 2006 12:00 AM

Deadly Landslide in Indonesia Sets off Debate over Role of Logging in Disaster

BANGKOK, Thailand — Landslides and flash floods in Indonesia that killed as many as 240 people have set off a heated debate over the role logging may have played in the disaster that covered scores of homes in mud and rock.


Local environmentalists say logging in central Java worsened the situation and exposed the government's failure to reign in illegal logging rampant across the archipelago.


But the administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono denies that logging was to blame and has found unlikely support from international conservation groups.


They said the cause of the landslide likely had more to do with the makeup of central Java, where thousands live in flood-prone areas and farmers have torn down forests to clear agriculture land and plantations.


"Often the knee-jerk reaction to such tragic disasters is to blame them on excessive tree logging," said Greg Clough, a spokesman with The Center for International Forestry Research, a conservation group.


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"Sure, deforestation may play a small part in flooding," he said. "But strong scientific evidence suggests even good forest cover will not prevent flooding in cases like Jember, where reportedly heavy rains fell for several days. Exceptionally long and heavy downfalls saturate the forest soil, making them unable to absorb more water."


Relatives Friday watched helplessly as bodies were pulled from the rubble days after heavy rain on the main island of Java unleashed landslides and flash floods in the village of Cijeruk and district of Jember, divided by hundreds of kilometers (miles) of mountainous terrain.


So far 149 corpses have been found, many of them bloated or decayed, and rescuers said they may have to halt their search in the next 24 hours.


The landslides have reignited the logging issue and pushed it onto the front pages of local papers. The concern has also put the government on the defensive.


"There is no illegal logging case as reported by the media. The disaster is caused by the conversion of many forest areas to become coffee plantations," Forestry Minister Malam Kaban said while visiting Jember.


Forest Watch Indonesia and other environmentalists are not convinced and have called on the government to get tough on logging, especially illegal cutting that contributes to 90 percent of all timber. By some estimates, 75 million hectares (185 million acres) of an estimated 120 million hectares (297 million acres) of forests in the country have been degraded.


"They should know this kind of thing can happen. This is not the first time that we've seen landslides and flooding," said Togu Manurung of Forest Watch Indonesia.


"Even though the government has developed a program to combat illegal logging, it's still going on all over including Java," he said. "The situation is bad."


Manurung also called for the government to launch a national reforestation program, as part of an effort to reduce the devastation caused by floods and landslides.


"More and more disasters will happen in the near future," he said. "The government should give a priority to replanting areas where there has been deforestation. They should do this to increase the forest cover."


But the United Nations, in a study released in October, concluded that heavy rains and activities like dam building were the main causes of flooding and that economic and human losses were due to people increasingly moving into flood zones.


The report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found said that after landslides in 2004 that killed more than 1,000 in the Philippines, the government there banned all logging after erroneous reports said the practice caused the disaster.


The ban hit small-scale loggers hardest, the FAO said, forcing many to abandoned their plots and relocate to slums in urban areas.


Source: Associated Press


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