Inside the Illegal Industry Cutting Down Indonesia's Rainforests

The Leuser ecosystem is supposed to be protected land. But the designation has done little to stop the spread of illegal logging syndicates.

by Hendri Abik
05 February 2018, 8:30am

All photos by author

The aging Colt diesel truck groaned as it slowly crept up the steep trail through Aceh's lush Gunung Leuser National Park. Arul*, the man at the wheel, wasn't going to push it. He's made this trip numerous times before and the cargo strapped onto the bed in the back was too expensive to risk a breakdown.

Five sizable logs were stacked behind the cab. All were harvested illegally from the last intact tropical ecosystem in Indonesia—an area roughly five times the size of Bali that's home to hundreds of mammals, birds, and reptiles, including several critically endangered creatures like the Sumatran tiger, rhino, and elephant.

“I’m always careful when I do this, because before we bring the logs to the boss, we always have to make sure the current situation is safe," Arul told VICE. "We also have an alternative path that the authorities don’t know about."

Indonesia has lost billions of US dollars to illegal logging since 2003 as more than four times the amount of legally harvested logs vanished on the black market, according to estimates. The country has taken steps in recent years to try to curb illegal logging, with varying degrees of success. The Ministry of Forestry and Environment recently claimed that deforestation rates had fallen 21.2 percent in the past two years, citing new government policies on land use and a moratorium on new oil palm plantations.

But the country's national forests, all of them protected, cover millions of hectares, making detection by the authorities difficult. On the ground, illegal loggers like Arul operate without arrest, feeding an industry that's proven surprisingly resilient.

The level of illegal logging in Leuser has more than doubled since 2016 according to estimates by the nonprofit Leuser Conservation Forum (FKL). Ibnu Hasyim, the database manager at FKL, told VICE that an additional 3,756 cubic meters of illegal timber came out of the ecosystem last year—totaling 7,421.3 cubic meters of logs.

“The Leuser ecosystem has been declared a National Strategic Area that should be maintained and managed by promoting the concept of protection, preservation and sustainable utilization,” Hasyim said.

Despite the designation, some 6,875 hectares of rainforest in Leuser had vanished into illegal sawmills by the end of 2017, according to FKL estimates. Without increased monitoring and enforcement, the problem is likely only going to continue as long as men like Arul keep getting pushed into blackmarket industries to earn a living.

It takes Arul half a day of motoring through dense, and steep, forests before we reach the national highway and pull onto the road. Arul knows that what he does to earn a living is illegal, but the way he tells it, he had few other options. Born poor in a province wracked for decades by a long and bloody civil war and is today full of migrants workers from other, more crowded parts of Indonesia, Arul told me that he struggled to find a way to support his wife and four children.

"I’ve tried to find another job, but all the positions I’ve applied for were already filled by others," he told me. "I wanted to work as a construction worker, but the contractor didn’t need us, since they already had workers from Java and North Sumatra. And all those palm oil fields are owned by rich people. They already have plantation workers as well. We are poor. We can't feed our families if we don't work like this."

Arul told me that he knew the risks. Illegal logging in a protected forest can land him behind bars. And the pay isn't even all that great. He gets Rp 500,000 per trip, but after gas, expenses, and salaries for his two loggers, he ends up pocketing about Rp 100,000 ($7 USD) per trip.

"We make two trips every day, so I can get Rp 200,000 [$14 USD]," Arul told me. "It’s enough for my family’s needs."

While Arul risks leaving the forest each day, other illegal loggers, like Udin*, 57, who works alongside four other men, all of them sleeping in the forest at night and cutting down trees during the daylight hours.

"Every day I can cut down one to two cubic meters of timber," Udin told VICE. "I get paid Rp 100,000 for every cubic meter. In a month, I can cut 24 cubics."

The small team, typically five men, stay on the move to avoid detection. In a given month, they can move across several districts in Aceh, hopping from hill to hill in the vast Leuser ecosystem. Each of them were supplied a wage, some food, and a chainsaw by their boss. Udin also said that the threat of poverty drove him to the job.

“It’s better to do this than doing nothing," Udin told me. "I have something to eat and I can give the money to my family."

Neither men have ever met their bosses directly. All the orders pass through an intermediate who runs an illegal sawmill. The idea here is so that whenever these loggers are arrested, they appear in the press as local men, not employees of a larger syndicate.

I met Abdul*, one of these intermediates, in a small village on the outskirts of the rainforest. Abdul told me that he spent millions of rupiah to start the business, buying chainsaws and trucks, as well as paying the wages of ten workers. His loggers spend their nights in the forest, supplying his mill with enough timber that, today, he can turn a tidy profit.

But it wasn't always this way, he said. Back in 2009, before he met a "big boss," or panglong, who lives in Banda Aceh, he struggled to get his timber to market.

“The first time it was kinda hard, because I didn’t know any panglong, but everything is easy now," Abdul told me. "Now everything is available."

According to Abdul's estimates, at least 70 percent of the timber sold from Aceh was illegally harvested. All that wood feeds an entire industry of blackmarket sawmills. In North Aceh alone, there are some 30 sawmills, he said.

"Every day, I get 1.5 tons of timber from illegal loggers," he said.

It's been weeks since I spent the day with the illegal logging teams, and I can't help but wonder how many more nights Udin has spent out there in the forest. And now many more logs left Leuser on the back of Arul's truck to disappear into the global supply chain.

But what sticks with me most of all is how all these men told me that it was poverty that drove them into the forest. And that idea, oddly enough, also fills me with hope, because if the police and military can't stop the loggers, maybe raising the welfare of Aceh will.

*Names have been changed.