One Month Later, Picture of Tsunami's Toll on the Environment Emerges

Rustling branches betray the likely presence of an orangutan in the distance, while twittering insects and streams provide the soundtrack of the tropical forests of Aceh province, a temple of nature rising above the tsunami-ravaged shores below.

JANTHO, Indonesia — Rustling branches betray the likely presence of an orangutan in the distance, while twittering insects and streams provide the soundtrack of the tropical forests of Aceh province, a temple of nature rising above the tsunami-ravaged shores below.

Though the forests that cover much of Aceh were left largely untouched by the Dec. 26 disaster, environmentalists fear these areas could be hurt in the rush to rebuild. And they warn a failure to heed environmental concerns during reconstruction could end up causing yet more natural disasters.

At the same time, greater scrutiny now by the scores of international aid workers who are here could help minimize the illegal logging fueled by widespread corruption that has flourished under the military's unchecked reign in Aceh, where foreigners have been mostly banned.

"It is clear that the recovery and reconstruction process under way must also invest in the environmental capital of natural resources, the forests, mangroves and coral reefs that are nature's buffer to such disasters and their consequences," Klaus Toepfer, head of the U.N. Environment Program said recently.

The tsunami's toll on the environment across the Indian Ocean is only now being assessed, since most aid work focuses on the immediate need of feeding and sheltering the hundreds of thousands of survivors.


In Sri Lanka and Thailand, coral reefs were broken and buried under sand, disrupting delicate ocean ecosystems. Rice fields and wells have been inundated with salt water, requiring years of rehabilitation.

Aceh was hardest-hit because it was closest to the epicenter of the earthquake that spawned the tsunami. A report by the government and international community estimated the economic cost to the environment at US$675 million (euro520 million), the U.N. Environment Program said.

Still, left untouched in the center of Aceh is the 2.6 million hectare (6.4 million acre) Leuser Ecosystem, crowned by a 3,140-meter (10,302-foot) mountain of the same name.

A moratorium on logging across Aceh was declared in March 2001 to protect Leuser and other forests, but that hasn't stopped illegal tree-cutting -- sometimes with the participation of rogue elements in the military that controls the region.

Teddy Gunawarman, secretary-general of the Leuser International Foundation, which has a government mandate to protect the area, said he fears that in inland areas ringed with forests, people will simply cut down nearby trees to rebuild rather than buy legal wood from elsewhere.

The forest forms the last place in the world where large mammals like elephants, orangutans, tigers and rhinoceros live together, Gunawarman said.

There could be ripple effects. In Jantho, 60 kilometers (35 miles) southeast of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, for example, logging could eliminate a vital water catchment along the Krueng Aceh river that feeds into the city, raising the risk of floods.

"People will be hit by a second natural disaster," Gunawarman warned.

It's happened before on Sumatra island. In November 2003, more than 200 people were killed when a flash flood swept through the Bukit Lawang tourist resort in North Sumatra province that neighbors Aceh.

Officials blamed illegal cutting upstream and labeled the people involved in the trade "environmental terrorists" -- threatening those convicted of illegal logging with a death sentence.

Mike Griffiths, vice chairman of the Leuser International Foundation, suggests using coconut trees and other alternative materials for new homes -- or even importing wood -- rather than cutting down the valuable hardwoods that make up Indonesia's forests.

"This is a chance for the international community to get together and instead of giving money or rice, to give timber," he said.

Mustafa Hasjbullah, head of the provincial Forestry Department, said he is pleading with aid groups not to use illegal logs to build new homes for tsunami victims. But he said his office can't really do anything to stop illegal logging and the final responsibility rests with the national government.

"I have forestry police but they have no power," said Hasjbullah.

The military says it receives only 30 percent to 40 percent of the funding its needs to operate in Aceh. That has encouraged the soldiers to come up with other solutions to make ends meet -- encouraging corruption and illegal businesses, said Steven Galster, executive director in Thailand of the environmental advocacy group WildAid and an expert on illegal logging in Aceh.

"There's an opportunity here now that Aceh is open... to keep (the army) busy in reconstruction without cutting down trees," Galster said. "It's a kind of ugly silver lining."

In Banda Aceh's urban planning office, Chairani Abdullah pores over plans for some 21 relocation camps with barracks for 100 people each, housing she says is needed urgently.

Still, she said no illegal wood would be used in the haste to finish the temporary houses for the tsunami homeless, enabling them to move out of tents and try to return to normal life.

"Even though it's an emergency, we have rules," she said.

Source: Associated Press