Indonesia: Java on brink of ecological collapse

Hans Nicholas Jong and Bambang Muryanto The Jakarta Post 24 Jun 16;

Tough mission: Military personnel and search and rescue team members scour debris for victims following a landslide at Kolongan Beha, Sangihe Islands, North Sulawesi, on Thursday. Floods and landslides caused by extreme weather in different locations in the past few days have left three people dead, damaged dozens of houses and affected transportation links.(Antara/Stenly Pontolawokang)

Unruly permit issuance and rapid extractive industry expansion have led to a string of disasters in several parts of Indonesia, particularly in Java, which is on the brink of ecological collapse as most of its forest areas have been converted.

Industrial activities have led to steep forest cover decline in Java, from 15 percent in the early 1990s to 3 percent currently. The deforestation has led to disasters such as flooding and landslides, which have been exacerbated by the recent extreme weather in Indonesia, according to Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) senior researcher Soeryo Adiwibowo.

“On one hand, the size of natural forests and agriculture fields keeps declining. On the other hand, industry, transportation and abandoned fields keep increasing because Java is being converted into an industrial zone even though its ecological burden is already too heavy,” he said.

The biggest culprit is the cement industry, which has grown by eating up the forests of Java. Investors flock to Java because it has more developed infrastructure and a larger labor force than other major islands in Indonesia.

“But the government has to develop outside Java as well right? Until now the growth of the extractive industry, especially cement, has been increasing sharply,” IPB forestry department senior researcher Hariadi Kartodihardjo told The Jakarta Post.

According to Hariadi, due to the massive loss of forests, Java is especially prone to flooding during the rainy season and drought during the dry season.

In 2015, 80 percent of Java’s 118 regencies and municipalities experienced heavy flooding, while 90 percent suffered from prolonged drought.

“The loss of vegetation is causing a dramatic gap between the dry season and rainy season. During the dry season, there is no water catchment and soil dries fast. On the other hand, water cannot be contained during the rainy season because there is no vegetation,” said Hariadi.

Regional governments have contributed significantly to the loss of forest coverage in Java by issuing regulations that benefit the extractive industry. IPB data said that between 2007 and 2008, at least 122 of the 278 bylaws passed by local governments in Java made it easy for companies to exploit natural resources.

“But now the Home Ministry is revoking regional regulations that hinder investment, not regulations that are destroying the environment and supporting the extractive industry. It means the government only thinks of the economy and not the environment,” Hariadi said.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said regional governments should also improve their spatial planning.

“Ecological disasters like these are also related to spatial planning. Sustainable spatial planning already takes water conservation into account. It shows that the role of regional governments is huge,” she said.

Extreme weather has been especially deadly this year, with heavy rains hitting parts of Indonesia during an abnormally wet dry season. As of Thursday, 56 people had been killed due to flooding and landslides in Central Java alone, with nine people still missing.

Purworejo regency was hit the heaviest, with 42 people dead and six people missing. A search and rescue (SAR) mission is still ongoing, according to National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

“Around 300 SAR personnel are being deployed to look for the missing victims. Yesterday, the police deployed dogs but since there were many people watching the landslide, it created difficulties in the field,” he said.

Two villages in Purworejo; Sudimoro and Tlogorejo, were still isolated after a flood and landslide blocked road access to the areas.

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