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Bearing Witness: Empowering Indonesian Communities to Fight Illegal Logging

Sustainable livelihoods begin with the ability to exercise control over the natural resources on which one depends. For many forestdependent people, illegal logging short-circuits this control, robbing them of traditional forest uses and income. But some communities in Indonesia have found a way to fight back to preserve their forest livelihoods. With training in the use of video cameras and film-editing techniques, they have begun to document illegal logging incidents, using the footage to gain media coverage and to lobby for action against corrupt forest practices.

The video training, provided by a pair of environmental NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), has created a network of empowered citizens based in illegal logging hotspots in 15 regions across the archipelago—including Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and West Papua. Some have already put their newfound skills to impressive and effective use, with media and public airings of their films forcing the closure of illegal operations and promoting alternative livelihoods such as bamboo cultivation and fish farming (see examples below).

“One of the propaganda arguments put out by logging companies is that there are no alternative livelihoods for forest communities,” says Arbi Valentinus of Telapak, an Indonesian NGO that shares responsibility for the video training program. “In fact it is illegal logging that is disturbing and destroying traditional livelihoods such as mixed crop farming and cultivating rattan, honey, bamboo and herbs used in traditional medicines. Better enforcement against illegal logging helps to secure local livelihoods, reduce corruption, and break communities’ dependency on the timber barons” (Valentinus 2004)

Combating the Rise of Illegal Logging

More than 50 million people inhabit Indonesia’s rainforests, many pursuing traditional livelihoods including small-plot farming, bamboo harvesting, and fruit and honey collection. In addition to income, forests typically provide a variety of subsistence foods, materials, and spiritual and social values. In recent decades, these forests have been increasingly plundered for valuable hardwood that is smuggled overseas, often with the complicity of corrupt officials. Much of this illegal timber finds its way to China, Malaysia, and Singapore on its way to supply Western furniture markets (Schroeder-Wildberg and Carius 2003:24-33; EIA/Telapak 2002:12-15).

Since the fall of former Indonesian President Suharto in 1997, illegal logging and its impact on poor rural forest-dwellers has become a major issue for Indonesia’s government, its Western trading partners, and its evolving civil society and media. In part, this reflects the fact that nongovernmental organizations and journalists are now able to comment critically on government policy with less fear of repression. While bureaucratic corruption remains widespread, the Indonesian government at all levels has become more responsive to public scrutiny and civil-society pressure (Anderson and Hidayat 2004:12).

Click to view large versionAgainst this backdrop, two prominent NGOs—the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), based in the United Kingdom and the United States, and Telapak, based in Indonesia—began an innovative program to train communitybased NGOs to document and disseminate evidence of criminal logging activity in their forests. The project was funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID) under its Multi Stakeholder Forestry Program, which funds efforts to increase poor forest-dwellers´ influence on forest policymaking.

The project was based on the premise that the timber industry offers only short-term benefits to a small minority of Indonesians, and that forest loss means that livelihood alternatives for forest dwellers are dwindling fast, especially for the rural poor (MFP 2000:5; Anderson and Hidayat 2004:12). “Every year, two million hectares of forest disappear, eroding the livelihoods of as many as one million people,” says David Brown, a forest economist with DfID. “Meanwhile, only 200,000 people are employed in that segment of the Indonesian log felling and processing industry that operates illegally. Slowing down Indonesia’s illegal logging industry will make the forest-linked livelihoods of Indonesians more secure” (Brown 2004).

During the four-and-a-half-year project (2000-2004), Telapak and EIA trained over 300 civil-society representatives from 70 NGO and community groups. Participants were trained in basic camera and video skills, and 13 sets of surveillance and documentation equipment were distributed nationwide as a communal resource. In addition, nine local NGOs were trained in advanced film editing and given computers and software editing facilities. They now serve as regional resource centers for community activists working to fight deforestation and promote sustainable alternative livelihoods. In 2004 some of these regional NGO partners organized their own media training sessions to expand the video network and pass on their video skills to other communities. Total cost of the project was about US$2.3 million.

In setting up the video training, inclusiveness and diversity among the trainees were important guiding principles. Participants represented human rights and women’s groups as well as local and regional NGOs working specifically on forestry issues. In each region, attendees were chosen by a local NGO, which in turn was chosen by Telapak. “The groups we trained ranged from informal community groups with a local dignitary as their head to organized NGOs with 15 staff,” explained Dave Currey, EIA director. “We tried to be as inclusive as possible, to encourage those taking part to see illegal logging from a wide social and economic perspective and to encourage networking between civil society groups operating in the same communities. Corruption and intimidation in Indonesia’s forests, for example, affects the whole of community life, so you can’t discuss illegal logging without talking about human rights, the judicial system, and local governance. We were not prescriptive in how participants used their training. They knew the local conditions and decided themselves how to best use the skills they learned” (Currey 2004).

Praised for Effectiveness

Independent consultants who evaluated the video training project at its completion in 2004 judged it a success. They found that NGOs and community groups had used their videos and photographs “to inform and influence local and provincial decision-makers,” while campaigns these groups had triggered with their work had “helped stop the destruction of forests on which poor people depend” (Anderson and Hidayat 2004:10). Specifically, their publicity and advocacy efforts had helped protect rural communities against illegal logging in Sorong (West Papua), Makassar (South Sulawesi), North Sumatra, Nangroe, Aceh Darussalam, South Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, Bengkulu, Lampung, Jambi, and Central Java.

The success of the project reached beyond just prevention of illegal encroachment and logging. It also helped support calls for granting communities more management authority over local forests. The independent evaluators found that photos and videos, including interviews with villagers, had helped persuade authorities in several provinces of the rights and management abilities of local communities, and aided local groups in their efforts to secure more favorable forest tenure and management rights (Anderson and Hidayat 2004:13).

The trainees themselves seemed satisfied with their accomplishments. In a questionnaire, 11 of 13 activists trained by EIA and Telapak reported that their subsequent campaigns “had had a direct impact at the village level.” One of the benefits was greater activism and solidarity within and among communities around the issue of forest use. In several cases, a group of villages had agreed to work together to protect their local forest from illegal logging.

  • Indonesia suffers the world’s largest annual loss of forest cover. Ministry of Forestry officials estimate that more than 43 million hectares have been degraded, with an average annual deforestation rate of 2.8 million hectares from 1998 to 2002 (Kaban 2005).

  • An estimated 70 percent of Indonesia’s timber exports are illegal, costing the country US$3.7 billion a year in lost revenue (Saparjadi 2003).

  • Middlemen capture most of the profit from illegal logging. Members of illegal logging gangs, often poor forest-dwellers, receive a mere $2.20 per m3 of wood. Timber brokers receive $160 per m3. But Singaporebased exporters of sawn Indonesian hardwood charge US$800 per m3 to ship to Western markets (EIA/Telapak 2002:28).

“A film tells a story better than a printed campaign, it reaches more people,” commented Rama Astraatmaja, of Javabased ARuPA, one of the biggest NGOs to receive the video training. “Many homes in Indonesian villages these days have video recorders. Our films tell villagers stories about people with similar situations from other villages. This is something they do not usually see from TV which creates a solidarity feeling among them. Showing film [about illegal logging or non-timber livelihoods] always sparks a discussion. They start to talk about what they have seen, and they…see that the problem is real, and it needs a real solution” (Astraatmaja 2004).

Awareness-raising and campaigning by partner NGOs also reaped success on a larger scale. Nine NGOs reported “a direct impact at district level”—for example, through the introduction of new local government regulations to protect forest areas and limit access to logging companies. Seven reported success at the provincial level, with achievements including the creation by provincial governments of special teams to combat illegal logging. The independent evaluation also identified specific links between EIA/Telapak’s empowerment of local communities and efforts to achieve more sustainable nationwide forestry policies, with information on illegal logging feeding into the development of a national forest strategy (Anderson and Hidayat 2004:24).

Unintended Consequences?

While the video vigilance enabled by the project has clearly been effective, activism against illegal logging may also have some unintended consequences. For example, some Indonesian civil society groups are worried that the government, pressed to make some response to illegal logging, may target small-scale community- based loggers, as opposed to larger operations with deeper political and business ties. Some of these small-scale operators claim indigenous rights to forest resources, but their harvest is still considered illegal. For this reason, the wider discussion about illegal logging at a national level has incorporated debate about indigenous rights and tenure (Anderson and Hidayat 2004:3; Astraatmaja 2005; Currey 2005).

In addition, while by far the biggest slice of income from illegal logging is taken by middlemen and timber traders, many poor villagers working on illegal logging crews have benefited from the income it brings. Although the work is often dangerous, it may be more economically attractive than other more sustainable activities—at least for the short time that marketable trees are still available. In 2000, as many as 300 illegal sawmills were estimated to be active in Central Kalimantan alone, giving some idea of the size of the temporary logging economy in that region (Casson 2000:16). In the midst of a logging boom, the web of people drawing income from the logging effort—which includes a variety of jobs from felling, to transport, to milling—may reach well into rural communities (McCarthy 2002:876). Working against illegal logging, then, may cut income for some.

On the other hand, Dave Currey of the Environmental Investigation Agency maintains that any loss of income from shutting down illegal logging pales by comparison to the loss of livelihoods that such illegal operations cause over the longer term. The bigger picture issue, he says, “is that illegal logging is causing widespread poverty—as the DfID Multi-Stakeholder Program explicitly recognizes” (Currey 2004).

The Fruits of Vigilance

Examples of successful forest protection efforts by Indonesian community groups and NGOs, assisted by EIA/Telapak surveillance training and equipment, include:


Made up of 14 former forestry students turned environmental activists, ARuPA now acts as a resource hub for forest-based activists across Central Java and has itself trained members of 20 NGOs to document environmental crime and mismanagement.

Using the skills gained through EIA/Telapak training, ARuPA’s members documented illegal logging in Java’s teak forests by Perhutani, a government-owned forestry company. Their films also featured villagers’ complaints about Perhutani’s disregard for forest dwellers’ rights and were shown to local civil society groups and decision-makers. In 2002, ARuPA’s efforts contributed to the revoking of Perhutani’s Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification by Smartwood, an international timber assessor, which impacted the company’s market among Western furniture buyers. Subsequent attempts by the company to regain certification and lost business have failed (Astraatmaja 2004).

ARuPA also uses film to highlight successful examples of alternative, decentralized, sustainable forest-based livelihoods, including community-based forestry management and a Javan community’s initiative to plant bamboo after local pine plantations had been clear-cut. “Bamboo forest protects communities from flooding, landslides, and drought—environmental services that could not be provided by the pine forest,” says ARuPA spokesman Rama Astraatmaja. After negotiating an informal agreement with the local timber company official, villagers planted bamboo, preserving water supplies for their rice fields and contributing to the village economy by selling bamboo poles.


Daun, a regional NGO, campaigns against deforestation in wildlife-rich Tanjung Puting National Park, whose endangered species include clouded leopards, sun bears, and orangutans. Daun’s members have used their media training to build public awareness of the destructive impact of illegal logging by showing photographic and video evidence to communities, and then explaining the connection with lost livelihoods. One film distributed among riverside communities living on the park’s fringes documented how a local village had successfully developed small-scale fish farming as a sustainable alternative to illegal logging operations.

  • The Power of Public Disclosure. Public disclosure is a powerful tool to motivate action at the local and national scales. Video is a relatively easy route to public exposure, attracting media attention at modest cost and with modest training.
  • An Educational Tool for Alternative Livelihoods. Video documentation does not have to concentrate on infractions only, but can bring positive messages of alternative livelihood options.
  • A Tool for Community Empowerment. Use of video or other media tools can empower communities through access to information, which in turn promotes public dialog, shared values, and community activism.
  • Civil Society Groups are Key. Local community groups are often ideally placed to undertake video surveillance and to deploy the footage locally and to media. Diversity among these groups helps create a more effective network.
  • National and International NGOs are Important Catalysts. Larger NGOs are well-placed for capacity-building: administering video and media training, and helping to establish a national network for villagelevel logging surveillance.
  • Adverse Consequences for the Poor. Targeting illegal logging may benefit forest livelihoods in the long term, but may impose short-term hardships on some community members, particularly the poor, who are dependent on this employment. Supporting communities in the development of income alternatives is important to counterbalance short-term income loss.


LPMA has produced educational videos both documenting the destructive impact of illegal logging in protected forest in the Meratus area of South Kalimantan, and promoting honey collecting as an alternative way of generating income. The films have been shown to forest communities and to local politicians with the aim (not yet realized) of generating financial support to expand commercial honey collecting.


Ulayat, a Sumatran environmental group, documented illegal logging in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park by Semaku Jaya Sakti, a company owned by the district government. After its compelling visual evidence prompted provincial and national media stories, the park manager sued the logging company, and its director was forced to resign. Ulayat’s campaigning also resulted in the Kaur district government creating a forest regulation enabling action against illegal logging.


Hakiki, a regional NGO, documented and publicized evidence that Diamond Raya Timber, a logging concession holder in Riau Province, Sumatra, was logging outside its approved harvesting area. Hakiki then worked with the Riau provincial government to establish the Community Anti-Illegal Logging Network, whose members include provincial authorities, law enforcement officials, NGOs, and three district governments.