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May 2006
Chopping at the Roots of Exploitation
By Monica Engebretson

The most extensive rainforest cover in all of Asia is found in Indonesia. Indonesia’s numerous islands support seven biogeographic regions making it home to some of the earth’s most unique and diverse habitats, plants and animals. But it is also home to some of the world’s most impoverished people and egregious exploitation of forests and wildlife—factors that tend to feed each other.

While about 60 percent of Indonesia’s land area is forested, it loses more than 13.3 million acres of tropical rainforest each year according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). A 2003 BusinessWeek editorial, “Indonesia’s Chainsaw Massacre,” described the disappearing rate equivalent to the area of 300 soccer fields every hour.

Much of the logging is done illegally.

Global Forest Watch, an initiative of Washington, DC-based World Resources Institute, estimated in a 2002 report that illegal logging appeared to be the source of 50-70 percent of the country’s wood supply. Illegal loggers have formed mafia-like networks throughout Indonesia making enforcement difficult.

In a recent video interview, Ibu Yoke, a chief officer of the BKSDA (Forestry Department) on Seram Island (located in eastern Indonesia) stated, “In the past few years illegal logging activity is very high. Unfortunately, [such] cases [are] not processed completely.” She described situations in which confiscated timber was “buried,” i.e. distributed to those working in the island’s government office. “At this point, the biggest illegal logging is occurring in north Seram, Buru and Sulu,” she added.

Local villagers in these areas can easily be intimidated. Even when done legally, logging companies often capitalize on the poverty and desperation of local people by persuading them to forfeit their legal claims or “sell” portions of their forests in exchange for meager financial returns to the village. The resulting environmental degradation, however, is always theirs to keep.

Harvesting the Forest’s Creatures
The creatures of the forest are also exploited through similar illegal networks and government practices that capitalize on the poor and disenfranchised. Trafficking in rare and exotic wildlife is a global business, worth $10-$20 billion annually.

Government corruption often characterizes the illegal trade in wildlife. According to Ibu Yoke, “In 2004, the Tariff Office and the Animal Quarantine Office stated in their report that wild animal transport through Pattimura Airport decreased by 25 percent in the last six months. Though the frequency was low, the number of birds seized was quite high, tens to hundreds of individuals. There are many problems at the airport [for example], dealing with the military personnel such as TNI (the national troops) and Polri (the national police). [Once] I confiscated nine birds [and a] TNI officer told me that these birds were for the commandant (high officers in the police/military) in Jakarta.”

Birds are among the most popular animals in the exotic pet trade. The initial shock of losing their freedom and being confined to a cage can kill 10-20 percent of wild-caught birds. Researchers estimate that, to compensate for mortalities, up to four times as many parrots are captured than make it to market.

Birds kept in small cages or chained to perches outside of homes are symbols of wealth and prestige to people in western Indonesia, where poverty is minimal—a rate of 3.4 to 6.9 percent in 2002 according to the Jakarta Post (5/26/04). The birds are delivered to domestic markets by middlemen who make huge profits by purchasing the birds from village trappers in eastern Indonesia (including the Moluccan or “Spice” islands), where poverty levels are as high as 41.8 percent.

An investigation by Pro Fauna, an Indonesian animal welfare organization, of five Java bird vendors found that 47 percent of the parrots traded were protected under Indonesian law and included those listed on CITES Appendix I, thereby violating international conservation agreements.

The Moluccan Cockatoo (Cacatua moluccensis), a CITES Appendix I bird found only on the island of Seram, is one of the more sought-after birds for the pet trade. These birds may fetch hundreds of dollars in domestic markets or thousands of dollars in the international market. However, the trappers from local villages receive an equivalent of just six U.S. dollars or less for birds in good condition.

Faced with sometimes desperate situations in which money from a trapped cockatoo can buy much-needed medical treatment for a sick child, it is easy to understand, yet hard to accept, why some villagers turn to trapping.

Trading Medical Clinics for Rainforests
Over the past four years, Project Bird Watch (also known as the Indonesian Parrot Project), an all-volunteer U.S. nonprofit organization, in coordination with Yayasan Wallacea, an Indonesian nongovernmental organization, have been working to provide sustainable income to villagers in parrot-rich areas of Indonesia to protect birds and their habitat from trapping and logging activities.

Recently, Project Bird Watch, in collaboration with grant money from Seacology, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving island environments and cultures, announced the creation of a 370 acre rainforest heritage zone on the island of Seram. This site, in pristine lowland forest, was set aside by the king of the District of Sawai, with the agreement of a wadah or council of village leaders from the two principal villages involved (Masihulan and Sawai) as well as neighboring villages. The site, along with its indigenous fauna and flora, will be protected from all human intervention in order to be enjoyed and appreciated by future generations.

In return, Project Bird Watch enacted a series of initiatives to improve the quality of medical care in this economically-disadvantaged region. These included the building of two new medical clinics; provision of non-polluting, solar-powered generator systems to power water purification systems and refrigerators (to help maintain the shelf-life of pharmaceuticals under tropical conditions); providing advanced medical training for the village mantri (nurse practitioners); and the writing of a small manual detailing basic hygiene and sanitary procedures for children and adults.

Stewart Metz, Director of Project Bird Watch, comments: “Some wildlife conservation programs focus mostly on ways to bring new sources of sustainable income to local peoples to replace their dependence on trapping. We felt that Project Bird Watch could go deeper and earn both the lasting trust and friendship of the Seramese people in bringing some improvements to the village’s entire quality of life. That is important to us; these are very wonderful people. At the same time we are making some progress changing their cultural attitudes about the intrinsic value of their spectacular forest and avifauna. In Indonesia, it’s called ganti-rugi—a win-win situation.”
Trading Trapping for Sustainable Income

In addition to addressing the medical needs of the villagers, Project Bird Watch and Yayasan Wallacea have initiated sustainable income projects, including rainforest nut collection and an eco-tourism program that offers former bird trappers an opportunity to work as bird guides and porters.

Some ecotourism programs merely hasten the destruction of wild places rather than ensuring long-term protection because the local communities in the project areas do not own the project and are at best poorly paid employees of the operation. The Project Bird Watch tour program is decidedly different.

In the villages where Project Bird Watch works, local villagers own 100 percent of the lodging, 100 percent of the land that the lodging is built on; the community has an equal vote in decision-making about the tourism operation and receives nearly 100 percent of the profits from the tours.

The group’s ecotourism projects are currently focused on the island of Seram in the villages of Sawai (a Muslim village) and Masihulan (a Christian village), with the Sawai village hosting the guests and the neighboring Masihulan villagers serving as tour guides. 

Two tree platforms have been built near the villages so tourists can visit the rainforest canopy. Using climbing gear and a human powered pulley system, bird watchers are hauled 150 feet up to the platform.

Ecotourism is less destructive than many other environmental uses and its impacts can be managed to achieve a balance between preservation and development. Project Bird Watch strikes that balance by limiting both the size and number of tours and by incorporating environmentally conscious meals, lodging, waste management and wildlife viewing principles into the tours.

Another sustainable income project on the islands spearheaded by Project Bird Watch and Yayasan Wallacea is the collection and sale of Molucca nuts, collected from the kenari tree—a native rainforest tree. Molucca nuts are rich and flavorful, similar to Macadamia or Brazil nuts. The nuts are eaten whole, or are incorporated into cookies, cakes, pudding and nut candies. The project’s dependence on the kenari tree helps to assure forest protection.

Caring for Casualties
The villagers who work with Project Bird Wath and Yayasan Wallacea haven’t just stopped catching birds, they’ve become active opponents of the bird trade. Some are even participating in the rehabilitation and re-release of trapped birds.

In September 2004, Inodonesian national park officers accompanied by police and military officials arrested a major bird dealer in eastern Indonesia. The dealer had a long history of trafficking in wild-caught Indonesian parrots despite the fact that most of the birds he traded are protected by Indonesian laws. Wildlife dealers regularly avoid arrest by bribing law enforcement authorities. Officers who refuse bribes face risk of physical harm at the hands of associated wildlife dealer “gangs.”

Evidence of the dealer’s acivities was collected by the leader of the Sawai village and was reported to the chief of the island’s National Park, who in turn initiated the arrest. Because of the integrity and bravery of these two men, nine Moluccan cockatoos, two Eclectus parrots and five red-cheeked parrots were confiscated and a strong message was sent to other wildlife dealers that trafficking in rare birds will not be tolerated.

Because trapped birds frequently incur severe injuries during their capture and transport, and may suffer from malnutrion or be exposed to disease, confiscated birds cannot be immediately released into the wild. In response to the needs of confiscated birds, Project Bird Watch has built a rehabilitation and release center aptly named kembali bebas a phrase meaning ‘return to freedom.’

Project Bird Watch now collaborates with a network of Indonesian wildlife rescue and rehabilitation groups to help other birds regain thier freedom. According to Bonnie Zimmermann, Vice President of Project Bird Watch, over 150 birds, including cockatoos, parrots, cassowaries, lories and hornbills, have been sent to kembali bebas.

Villagers (including ex-trappers) aid in the rehabilitation process by collecting the birds’ native foods from the forest and by guarding the birds from poachers. Project Bird Watch oversees the birds’ rehabilitation and the training of village staff. Before consideration for release, all birds are fastidiously tested for the diseases of the greatest concern.

With a shoe-string budget, long hours and much out-of-pocket expenses, Project Bird Watch and Yayasan Wallacea are making the link between safeguarding people, forests and animals a reality.

Monica Engebretson is an advisor to Project Bird Watch and has traveled twice to Indonesia with the organization. For information visit

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