"Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal."
- Edward O. Wilson
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A Review of Forests: Conservation, Culture, and Biodiversity

Forests, for Indonesians, have always been a fundamental part of their national heritage. The animals and plants that reside within their country, such as the Macrocephalon maleo (Indrawan, Wahid, Argeloo, Mile-Doucet, Tasirin, Koh, Summers and McGowan, 2012) and the Nephelium lappaceum (rambutan tree), (Cicuzza, Kessler, Clough, Pitopang, Leitner and Tjitrosoedirjo, 2011) are essential parts of their cultural identity and have in the past and present needed the efforts of indigenous cultures to take on the task of environmental stewardship.

Cultures, like the Iban, (Wadley and Colfer, 2004) have created sustainable resource management techniques between their harvesting of natural resources and habitat preservation. In their agricultural practices, such as swidden cultivation (Harada, 2003), they tend to leave parts of the forest in ‘long fallow’ whereby they can reliably come back to patches of forest for planting pots and still have nutrient rich soils despite their past use. Along with their habitat conscious agriculture, the Iban and several indigenous groups throughout Indonesia, recognize longhouses and tree reserves as important areas to preserve.

Longhouses are protected because of the fruit trees grown surrounding them which provide an important supplement to Iban diets. Tree reserves are protected because they have important cultural significance as places of burial, ritual importance and ‘spiritual habitation’ (Wadley and Colfer, 2004). However, simply because these areas are important to native cultures, does not mean that they are not being utilized to extract resources for survivability or economic gain.

Possible forms of resource extraction within protected forests usually consist of: sawah—wet rice paddy cultivation, agroforestry (Henley, 2008), poaching of forest products, swidden cultivation as mentioned above, or gathering fuel wood (Harada, 2003). Historically, all of these practices have occurred sustainably among native groups and haven’t been expanded to a larger scale until recently. As a result, many indigenous groups do not think that these practices cause deforestation or habitat destruction when performed by locals or on the industrial scale (Harada, 2003). These false perceptions of current forest misuse, along with consequences derived from a transformation in political organization, have led to several stark realities for Indonesian forests. changing political climate has done severe damage to some areas of pristine forest. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Suharto regime many efforts were put forth to conserve areas that were essential to native wildlife as well as important heritage sites. However, during the late 1990s the Suharto governance fell, leading to fractured states on individual islands within the country (Carr Kelman, 2013). Conservation of native forests did not always have government backing and as a result of differing goals and political stratagems for rebuilding a shattered economy, each island took it upon themselves to utilize their natural resources to their fullest. Sometimes this meant a large amount of forest being consumed to support palm oil or coffee industrial complexes.

Figure 1.0 Indonesia’s forest loss within the last decade.

During the latter half of the past decade there has been a reemergence of efforts to save key species and their habitats by both the local governments and indigenous groups (Indrawan et al, 2012). Some solutions have involved utilizing agro forests (Cicuzza et al, 2011) as hotbeds for protected of endemic plant species since these species nourish the soil and help to stop erosion from occurring in post-forest habitats (Jack, Leimona and Ferraro, 2009). Other efforts, such as pushing local public policy through, to maintain large tracts of native habitat have also been occurring within islands such as Sulawesi (Indrawan et al, 2012). These efforts ensure that parks, like Danau Sentarum National Park in Kalimantan, have been able to maintain and improve populations of the Indonesian orangutan (Wadley and Colfer, 2004). Still, further efforts to maintain some native habitats have been encouraged by the work of indigenous peoples who seek to preserve their cultural heritage by protecting the lands that they grew up on and in many cases continue to live and raise families on (Wadley and Colfer, 2004).

In conserving areas for native inhabitants the use of exclusions, fines, and barriers have been documented but, when the use of these fail along with written and verbal agreements, then the contracts and efforts are referred to as ‘paper tigers’ (Engel, Palmer, and Pfaff, 2013). Many of the issues that arise come from whether an area is legally controlled by the state or an indigenous group. Sometimes the responsibilities of the one do not hold true for the other. The local government may want to expand its economy and thus log an area that a native group may want to preserve for hunting purposes. Or the reverse, where a native group may want to sell off its lands in order to be able to finance a move to a city but the local government may want to preserve the area as a park for tourists. If conservation maxims are to arise then comanagment strategies must be implemented for both the local government and native groups and alleviate the potential for paper tigers to occur in the future.

Despite these efforts, there remains a certain danger from industries that stand to profit from the continued destruction of Indonesian tropical rainforests and political division between local government and native groups; the timber and paper pulp industries (Obidzinski and Dermawan, 2012). During the 1990s when logging roads were being constructed into the interior of Kalimantan, indigenous sacred sites were put in danger. Some logging roads passed close enough that Iban leaders insisted that ‘ritual fines’ and ‘rituals of expiation’ be performed. Companies would pay these fines in order to have logging rights to the land. The roads were a necessity for the Iban, (Wadley and Colfer, 2004) that needed access to modern industrial resources, such as medical supplies, as much as modern industrial nations needed access to the raw materials, such as wood pulp, forests could provide.

As the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean consumer economies continue to grow, a larger middle class establishment, needing new housing and documentation will continue to put pressure on countries high in forest reserves. Indonesia stands to gain in economic importance because of its potential production output but the price of losing cultural identity, national heritage sites and valuable endemic species, may yet be too high.