Conservationists vs chainsaws

05/02/15 at 1:44 pm

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Office of the Harapan Rainforest conservation program in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by NaidNdoso/Wikimedia Commons

When a UK environment group set out to save a Sumatran forest, they were met by landless settlers who also laid claim to the land. In a story published in February by The Guardian, Colm O’ Molloy, Stabile ’13, narrates what  happened next and reveals what are at stake in Harapan, a logged over rainforest the size of greater London that is owned and managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

O’ Molloy worked on this project while enrolled in the Stabile program. He traveled to Indonesia to document a different type of environmental conflict. This one does not involve a big logging company cutting down a forest for profit. Instead, this is a story of how landless migrants settling in logged over rainforests found themselves at odds with a conservation group.

In 2007, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds bought Harapan  as part of an effort to save and replant Sumatran rainforests. The environmentalists soon found themselves in conflict with migrant farmers who were cutting down the trees, even as the RSPB was planting new ones. Satellite data shows that since 2007, Harapan has lost at least four times as much forest as it has replanted with trees.

As O’Molloy wrote:

There is a lot at stake at Harapan. Indonesia, one of the world’s great rainforest nations, is losing trees at a rate faster than any other country. Half its forests disappeared between 1985 and 2007, eaten up by the ever-expanding palm and acacia plantations that feed global demand for palm oil and paper.

But in Southeast Asia’s largest economy the hunger for forests reaches far beyond big business. Unprecedented growth has brought increased competition for land. Up to 50 million landless farmers vie with corporate giants and conservation projects alike for ever scarcer forests and the fertile earth they shelter.

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