One would like to think that governments exist to take care of the public good and that ensuring fairness in access to opportunities and resources for all their citizens, present and future, would be their fundamental role. But in so many of the forest-rich countries of the tropics, this has not been the case. Rather than holding forests in trust for the nation, many government officials have usurped rights to the forest for their personal enrichment. Forests have not been just victims of corruption, they have also fueled it. Economic growth, expansion of trade, and the availability of bigger machines for logging and clearing tropical forests have combined to provide irresistible opportunities for those in power. In many countries, the most visible symptom of bad governance has been abuse of forests and land, and the lightning rod for expression of public dissatisfaction with corrupt governments has been the struggle for equity in access to natural resources. It was, therefore, no surprise to find Indonesia's nascent environmental organizations at the forefront of the barricades during those tumultuous days in May 1998 that led to the overthrow of the Soeharto regime.
Since then, the country has been swept by a tidal wave of change. Reformist elements have struggled with the powerful forces of vested interest and conservatism in a game that is still far from being played out. Meanwhile, opportunists throughout the country, both the rich and powerful and the poor and marginalized, have seized the opportunities provided by huge vacuums in the power structures. With the uncertainty of the future and lucrative export opportunities created by the depreciation of the local currency, there has been an explosion of opportunistic forest exploitation and clearing. The very process of reform and democratization that should, in the long term, help to bring forests under better public control has, in the short term, exposed these forests to unprecedented threats.
This book documents the events of the past years in Indonesia and will help us to learn what went wrong. Indonesia may be unique in the magnitude of the forest problems created by corruption and the battles to eliminate it. But many of these problems occur to a greater or lesser extent in other forest-rich countries in the tropics; recently the same issues are emerging in the ex-Soviet Union. The question implicit in this book is, what might the forest conservation lobby have done differently to counter the pernicious evil of corruption and avert the more disastrous asset-stripping associated with the transition to democracy? After all, there were tens of millions of people in Indonesia who were bearing the cost of forest abuse. And a significant proportion of the billions of dollars generated by international efforts to save rain forests was invested in Indonesia. One irony is that rather than being the allies of the potential domestic constituency for forest conservation—the forest people—the international campaigners were marching to a different drum. They also wanted to expropriate the forests and set them aside for some lofty global environmental purpose—in the eyes of local people they were just as much a threat as the loggers.
Meanwhile, much of the official development assistance allocated to support better forest management was being used in feeble attempts to bring about marginal improvements in the technologies of forestry. Donor after donor set out to “demonstrate” its own particular model of how forests ought to be managed. In many cases the approaches advocated were little more than “technologists’ dreams of what might, in theory, work.” Much was totally alien to the social and political realities of the country.
So what might have been done differently? First, one must acknowledge that the students and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who brought about change were able to do so in part because of the empowerment that occurred through access to information and support from international networks of activists. Many, but not enough, development assistance agencies had been devoting their resources to education and professional development and to working with NGOs. They had a significant effect on the emergence of Indonesia's civil society. But much international assistance was, and to some extent still is, devoted to maintaining the institutional status quo. The burgeoning bureaucracies that fed on natural resources were being encouraged and promoted by international projects.
And what of the future? The worst abuses of the old regime are now, we hope, a thing of the past. But the country is destined to pass through a difficult period of transition. I personally doubt if the international community will achieve much by coming with “ready-made” solutions to Indonesia's problems. What it can do is help to build a generation of Indonesians with the knowledge and skills to find their own solutions. Exemplary centers of research and higher education, well connected to the outside world, will yield people with the knowledge and moral authority to steer the country in the right direction. And we must never forget that the main source of essential knowledge of Indonesian forests remains with the people who live in the forests. The empowerment of these people and the legitimization of their rights must be a major part of the solution.
The forests of Indonesia and the people who depend on them have suffered greatly from the events of recent years. But both the forests and the people are resilient, and the human and natural resources remain amongst the richest in the world. It is still possible to hope for a richer and more sustainable future for the country—but this outcome is by no means guaranteed. The abscess of bad governance has been lanced, but the patient is going to need a great deal of care and a considerable measure of luck if the potential of the forests is to be restored and sustained.
Jeffrey A. Sayer
World Wide Fund for Nature