Martin Hickman: Short-term drive for profit is behind this travesty


Martin Hickman
Tuesday 31 January 2012 01:00

Teeming with rare mammals, the Tripa swamp is an orangutan stronghold and vital carbon store in north-western Sumatra, an island larger than the UK whose natural wealth for decades has been relentlessly stripped by Indonesia's corrupt rulers. Nearly half its forest was burnt or chainsawed between 1985 and 2007, proportionally more than neighbouring Borneo, which is shared between Indonesia and the more orderly Malaysia and Brunei.

Environmentalists are especially displeased because these 4,000 acres sit within the Leuser Ecosystem, a theoretically highly protected national park, which is home to 91 per cent of the 6,624 surviving Sumatran orangutans. While odd-looking and seemingly esoteric, orangutans come into the picture because – aside from being distinctive and intelligent animals in their own right – they are an "umbrella species": where they prosper, so too do other rare and amazing animals such as the Sumatran rhinoceros , clouded leopard and white-handed gibbon.

There is also alarm that this plan is supported by Irwandi Yusuf. When Aceh's insurgency ended in 2005, Yusuf promised to protect Aceh's rainforest. Like the robber-baron politicians he criticised as a separatist rebel, he is probably finding the balance between conservation and economic development difficult to strike. Most razed land is turned over to produce palm oil, the cooking oil found in the pans of Asia's poor and Western processed foods and beauty products; a lucrative earner of foreign cash.

Ultimately, south-east Asia's forests will only survive if they are worth more alive than dead. The UN's REDD initiative, which pays owners to preserve their trees, is probably is their best hope, but REDD is short of international donations. As ever, the problem is that politicians think short-term and nationally, rather than sustainably and globally – the action most required by the world's beautiful creatures, its climate and ultimately us.

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