The Knasaimos People
Knasaimos village dwellings, West Papua, Indonesia. Photo Jago Wadley.
The Knasaimos people live surrounded by lush tropical forests. For the most part their lives have remained unaffected by the rest of the world. They live in harmony amongst the impenetrable greenery. Their survival and way of life is determined only by the continued welfare of their ancestral forest.
‘…To fulfill their basic needs all the people here would go to the forest. The relationship between our people and nature gives us pride. The traditional wisdom of indigenous people is to value our natural resources. It is our main asset, that is why we use this resource in a simple way, for us we don’t see nature as something to be destroyed…’ Frederick Sagisolo, Knasaimos village elder.
Indonesia’s islands support one of the most important areas of tropical forest in the world. These forests are home to one of the largest and most diverse arrays of animal life outside the Amazon basin. They also host one of nature’s giants: the Merbau tree. Merbau is one of the most sought after timbers in the world. Its strength and hardiness means it is exclusively used for hardwood flooring. Most of the Merbau timber originally came from the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. With those supplies now exhausted an increasing amount is presently being logged from Papua Province on the western half of New Guinea, where the Knasaimos people live.
Merbau is a hugely successful industry annually making profits exceeding a billion dollars. Most of the Merbau is destined for the markets of China, the European Union and North America. As a result the forests of Southeast Asia have been ransacked to satisfy this unceasing need for supply. Indonesia has one of the largest rates of deforestation in the world – losing around 2.8 million hectares a year. It is a problem fast escalating out of control.
The logging companies moved into the Knasaimos tribal area in 2002. Through bribes, threats and intimidation vast amounts of the precious Merbau was removed from the forest. An early estimate suggested that up to 300,000 cubic metres of stolen Merbau was being smuggled out of West Papua each month.
‘…Our concern is that the Knasaimos area is very small and in about five years there will only be grass, no trees will be left…’ Frederick Sagisolo, Knasaimos village elder.
Frederick Sagisolo. Photo Paul Redman.
The timber companies don’t seek permission from the local communities. Instead they use their considerable muscle, using corrupt officials and the military, to do as they wish. The difficulties faced in stopping this deforestation are compounded when an estimated 80% of logging in Indonesia is carried out illegally. The methods employed by these illegal timber barons can frequently be ruthless, bribery and intimidation being common. Because of endemic corruption they have proven even more difficult in tracking down and stopping. Consequently the Knasaimos people have inadvertently found themselves on the receiving end of this burgeoning market for the dark luxurious Merbau.
‘…Before the company came we lived in harmony, after the company came a different necessity and competition arose, some new values appeared, “I must get things like he or she has, I have to be like him or her”, this led to a motivation to give value to things, with no respect for the values we already have…’ Frederick Sagisolo, Knasaimos village elder.
The international trade in illegally harvested timber detrimentally affects the country where the wood originates. Firstly the government loses billions in missed revenues. A recent estimate suggests the Indonesian government lost an estimated $4.3 billion annually through this illegal trade in timber. Illegal logging also undermines local law and governance. The trade has already tarnished the reputation of the Indonesian government, the police, the military and forestry officials. The effect this has on the local environment has been even more damaging. Floods and droughts are regular occurrences where logging has taken place, thus limiting the opportunities for sustainable development in the region.
Things are changing. In March 2005 the Indonesian government, after being made aware of the extent of the problem, implemented the Hutan Lestari Dua, an enforcement operation intended to stop logging altogether in West Papua. The initial effect appears promising. During the crackdown more than 40,000 cubic metres of stolen Merbau, logging equipment, plus vehicles for transporting the goods was seized. Over 170 people were arrested during the operation – including members of the local police, military personnel and forestry officials. The entire haul amounted to almost a quarter of a billion dollars in timber and logging equipment.
The developing situation has endorsed the local communities into taking control of the trade from their forests. This has allowed the Knasaimos people to instigate a thorough inventory throughout their land, giving them control of what can be logged, to whom and for what price. The signs remain promising.
‘…As the head of the village, with the people, we should manage the forest by ourselves. We can make it sustainable and cut to a strict quota of timber. We are now asking for support from the government so we can manage our forest, the community can fulfill their basic needs, develop our village and improve living conditions. This will motivate us to get better health and education…’ Michael Kladit, Knasaimos village leader.
Written by Tim Lewis.