Environmental Issues in Indonesia

Environmental issues in Indonesia are associated with the country’s high population and rapid industrialization, and they are often given a lower priority due to high poverty levels and weak, under-resourced governance. Issues include large-scale deforestation (much of it illegal) and related wildfires causing heavy smog over parts of western Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore; over-exploitation of marine resources; and environmental problems associated with rapid urbanization and economic development, including air pollution, traffic congestion, garbage management, and reliable water and waste water services. Deforestation and the destruction of peatlands make Indonesia the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Habitat destruction threatens the survival of indigenous and endemic species, including 140 species of mammals identified by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as threatened, and 15 identified as critically endangered, including the Sumatran Orangutan.

In the coastal commercial sector, for instance, the livelihood of fishing people and those engaged in allied activities – roughly 5.6 million people – began to be imperiled in the late 1970s by declining fish stocks brought about by the contamination of coastal waters. Fishermen in northern Java experienced marked declines in certain kinds of fish catches and by the mid-1980s saw the virtual disappearance of the terburuk fish in some areas. Effluent from fertiliser plants in Gresik in northern Java polluted ponds and killed milkfish fry and young shrimp. The pollution of the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Sumatra from oil leakage from the Japanese supertanker Showa Maru in January 1975 was a major environmental disaster for the fragile Sumatran coastline. The danger of supertanker accidents also increased in the heavily trafficked strait.

The coastal commercial sector suffered from environmental pressures on the mainland, as well. Soil erosion from upland deforestation exacerbated the problem of siltation downstream and into the sea. Silt deposits covered and killed once-lively coral reefs, creating mangrove thickets and making harbour access increasingly difficult, if not impossible, without massive and expensive dredging operations.

Although overfishing by Japanese and American “floating factory” fishing boats was officially restricted in Indonesia in 1982, the scarcity of fish in many formerly productive waters remained a matter of some concern in the early 1990s. As Indonesian fishermen improved their technological capacity to catch fish, they also threatened the total supply.

A different, but related, set of environmental pressures arose in the 1970s and 1980s among the rice-growing peasants living in the plains and valleys. Rising population densities and the consequent demand for arable land gave rise to serious soil erosion, deforestation due to the need for firewood, and depletion of soil nutrients. Run-off from pesticides polluted water supplies in some areas and poisoned fish ponds. Although national and local governments appeared to be aware of the problem, the need to balance environmental protection with pressing demands of a hungry population and an electorate eager for economic growth did not diminish.

Major problems faced the mountainous interior regions of Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Sumatra. These problems included deforestation, soil erosion, massive forest fires, and even desertification resulting from intensive commercial logging – all these threatened to create environmental disasters. In 1983 some 30,000 km² of prime tropical forest worth at least $10 billion were destroyed in a fire in Kalimantan Timur Province. The disastrous scale of this fire was made possible by the piles of dead wood left behind by the timber industry. Even discounting the calamitous effects of the fire, in the mid-1980s Indonesia’s deforestation rate was the highest in Southeast Asia, at 7,000 km² per year and possibly as much as 10,000 km² per year. Although additional deforestation came about as a result of the government-sponsored Transmigration Program in uninhabited woodlands, in some cases the effects of this process were mitigated by replacing the original forest cover with plantation trees, such as coffee, rubber, or palm. In many areas of Kalimantan, however, large sections of forest were cleared, with little or no systematic effort at reforestation. Although reforestation laws existed, they were rarely or only selectively enforced, leaving the bare land exposed to heavy rainfall, leaching, and erosion. Because commercial logging permits were granted from Jakarta, the local inhabitants of the forests had little say about land use, but in the mid-1980s, the government, through the Department of Forestry, joined with the World Bank to develop a forestry management plan. The efforts resulted in the first forest inventory since colonial times, seminal forestry research, conservation and national parks programs, and development of a master plan by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

The use of fires to clear land for agriculture has contributed to Indonesia being the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the United States. Forest fires destroy carbon sinks in old-growth rainforests and peatlands. Efforts to curb carbon emissions, known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), include monitoring of the progression of deforestation in Indonesia and measures to increase incentives for national and local governments to halt it. One such monitoring system is the Centre for Global Development’s Forest Monitoring for Action platform, which currently displays monthly-updating data on deforestation throughout Indonesia.

Natural hazards also affect the environment in Indonesia. These hazards include occasional floods, severe droughts, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, forest fires Human activities can help cause or exacerbate these hazards.

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