JAKARTA – Landslides and flash floods which may have killed hundreds on the Indonesian island of Java this week will be repeated unless the government reforests denuded areas, activists warned Wednesday.
Sixteen people were confirmed dead but up to 200 were feared killed after tons of mud slammed into a village in Central Java Wednesday, while at least 57 lives were lost in floods that swept through four East Java villages Monday.
Java is one of the world’s most densely-populated islands. Rampant illegal logging as well as conversion of land for farming has left its forest cover area, both natural and plantation, at just 11 percent, activists say.
Togu Manurung, from Forest Watch Indonesia, said he expects similar disasters to occur more frequently on Java, as about 30 percent coverage is required for ecosystems to function normally.
He said heavy rainfall on land that has been largely deforested meant that its ecosystem lacked capacity to regulate the water, particularly on a mountainous island like Java which is home to many volcanoes.
"I’m foreseeing that this same kind of problem potentially will happen more and more in Java, and also outside Java, due to the heavy forest degradation that has happened in Indonesia in the last 25 years," he told AFP.
Indonesia loses about 2.8 million hectares (6.9 million acres) of forests each year — among the highest rates in the world — and a government program aimed at replanting three million hectares in five years was neither enough, nor being carried out properly, he cautioned.
"In my opinion it should be the government’s top priority to do reforestation, replanting and the rehabilitation of degraded land and deforested areas," Manurung said.
The long-running involvement of corrupt military and government officials was "the root cause" of ongoing deforestation, with big-time financiers paying impoverished farmers to clear land, he said.
Manurung said overcapacity in Indonesia’s wood processing industry created insatiable demand, with the gap between capacity and legal wood production at about 40 million cubic metres each year.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a decree earlier this year ordering 18 government institutions to work together, which was a start but still not enough, he added.
Greenpeace Southeast Asia forestry campaigner Hapsoro also called on the government to take swift action, labelling both of the latest disasters man-made.
"We can look forward to another disaster if they don’t stop (deforestation) and if they don’t reforest areas with original species to make new natural forests," he told AFP.
"This is a sign for the Indonesian government to be more serious… this island needs to recover."
Earlier this week Chalid Muhammad, chairman of prominent Indonesian environmental group Walhi, blamed deforestation for the flash flood tragedy at Jember, an area surrounded by coffee, tobacco and tea plantations.
"Floods on Java are closely linked to the worsening condition of forests on the island," he told AFP.
"Unless action is taken to address the problem, we can imagine what will happen to Java in the future. The government must make a breakthrough to save Java island, where 65 percent of Indonesia’s population live."
Indonesia, home to more than 220 million people, has already endured numerous tragedies blamed by environmentalists on deforestation.
In 2003 more than 200 people were killed when flash floods tore through Bahorok, a popular riverside resort in North Sumatra. Some officials denied deforestation was the cause of that tragedy.
In February last year, more than 140 Indonesians died when a garbage slide buried more than 60 houses in a village southwest of Jakarta after days of heavy rains.
In two separate landslides on Java in 2002 and 2003, a total of 44 people were killed. Deforestation was blamed for one of them and cited as a possible cause in the other.