Indonesia Table of Contents

For centuries, the geographical resources of the Indonesian archipelago have been exploited in ways that fall into consistent social and historical patterns. One cultural pattern consists of the formerly Indianized, rice-growing peasants in the valleys and plains of Sumatra, Java, and Bali; another cultural complex is composed of the largely Islamic coastal commercial sector; a third, more marginal sector consists of the upland forest farming communities which exist by means of subsistence swidden agriculture. To some degree, these patterns can be linked to the geographical resources themselves, with abundant shoreline, generally calm seas, and steady winds favoring the use of sailing vessels, and fertile valleys and plains--at least in the Greater Sunda Islands--permitting irrigated rice farming. The heavily forested, mountainous interior hinders overland communication by road or river, but fosters slash-and-burn agriculture.

Each of these patterns of ecological and economic adaptation experienced tremendous pressures during the 1970s and 1980s, with rising population density, soil erosion, river-bed siltation, and water pollution from agricultural pesticides and off-shore oil drilling. 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 fertilizer 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 harbor 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 because of the need for firewood, and depletion of soil nutrients. Runoff 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 disaster. In 1983 some 3 million hectares of prime tropical forest worth at least US$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 700,000 hectares per year and possibly as much as 1 million hectares per year. Although additional deforestation came about as a result of the government-sponsored Transmigration Program (transmagrasi) 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 (UN).

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress