May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Taking on the timber tycoons

Published: Sep 30, 2007

It's lonely in the Forestry Minister's office, says GERRY VAN KLINKEN.

Amidst the Indonesian smoke, spare a thought for Forestry Minister Jamaludin Suryohadikusumo. As official custodian of Indonesia's vast but shrinking forests, he has to police some well connected timber tycoons. Men like Bob Hasan, golfing partner to Suharto and jokingly referred to as Indonesia's real Forestry Minister. Early in October Jamaludin apparently carried out a threat to remove the logging licence from a major commercial timber plantation owned by Hasan in East Kalimantan. The list of 160-odd licences slated for withdrawal also included other well-connected companies. Most were oil palm plantations. Jamaludin said satellite monitoring showed they had starting fires that blanketed the region in smoke for months, in defiance of a ban on burning timber wastes effective since last July.


Even though removal of a logging licence is no great hardship for a plantation, small time slash and burn farmers of Kalimantan and Sumatra were pleased with Jamaludin's action. For years they had been blamed for causing smoke, while large companies walked scot free. Bob Hasan, on the contrary, fumed about communist environmental non-government organisations, and continued to blame farmers and El Nino for the fires. Appointed to cabinet in 1993 from an obscure career in the Forestry Department, Jamaludin now joins Minister for the Environment Sarwono Kusumaatmaja as the ministers most respected by Indonesia's environmental movement. Some of his early attempts to assert himself against the flood of untaxed timber leaving the country were amateurish. Nothing was heard again, for example, about his 1994 curbs on the sale of chain saws. But Jamaludin's confrontation with Bob Hasan was by no means the first clash with big business. In 1994 his department forcibly took a 49% stake in several logging companies owned by Prayogo Pangestu guilty of damaging the forest. 'Nobody expected he would do this to Prayogo', an analyst said at the time. In 1995 he revoked some of the logging licences held by the giant Djajanti Group, part-owned by presidential cousin Sudwikatmono, for buying illegal timber. Indeed he has refused to renew numerous logging licences over the years for clear-felling or cutting outside their perimeter. He also tried to fine a pulp factory owned by Eka Tjipta Widjaya for using illegal timber. However, this attempt failed and he was forced to back down publicly.

No results

To track down timber criminals he formed special teams backed by soldiers and police. He offered them up to 50% of the proceeds of auctioned illegal timber captured. It was not enough. He has complained repeatedly that the military backed teams have produced no meaningful results. In July 1997 he tried to block a new cement factory at Gombong in Central Java, to be built by a company partly owned by the late father in law of Suharto's daughter Tutut. The plant was to use limestone under state owned forests. He faced strong opposition, and again the attempt appears to have failed. The next month he ordered a financial audit of a commercial timber plantation company owned by Suharto's half brother Probosutejo for misusing Reforestation Fund money. But nothing more has been heard of the affair.


Politically the most explosive is the Reforestation Fund. Little is known about this extra budgetary fund, but it contains billions of dollars drawn from timber taxes. Administered via presidential decree, it has long been a convenient fund for many other purposes beyond restoring forest cover. It has been used to build new aeroplanes, clear forest for irrigated rice, and lately to prop up the plummeting rupiah. Its major use has been to provide cheap loans to commercial timber plantation companies, which replant logged forests with quick growing pine or acacia for pulp factories. The tycoons have been major consumers of this credit. Jamaludin says he will refuse to fund companies who burn forest. Making a career of checking up on powerful tycoons, in the name of the state treasury as much as of the rain forest, has brought Jamaludin many enemies. The day after he threatened to cancel Hasan's Kiani Lestari logging licence an unusual call went up in parliament for Jamaludin's resignation. Indonesian cabinet ministers are responsible to the president, not to parliament. But when Jamaludin went to see him, Suharto received him for only ten minutes. He came out saying the head of state believed the real problem was not (who started) the fires but the El Nino effect. At a press conference, attended by no less than seven cabinet ministers and their expert staff, all maintained this presidential line, and none blamed big companies. Evidently, Jamaludin had been told to get in line, or else. Gerry van Klinken edits Inside Indonesia. A version of this report appeared in the Courier Mail, 11 October 1997.

Inside Indonesia 53: Jan-Mar 1998

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