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  PlanetSave 6 Jan 06
Deadly landslide in Indonesia sets off debate over role of logging in disaster
Written by Michael Casey

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP): Landslides and flash floods in Indonesia that killed as many as 240 people have set off a heated debate over the role logging may have played in the disaster that covered scores of homes in mud and rock.

Local environmentalists say logging in central Java worsened the situation and exposed the government's failure to reign in illegal logging rampant across the archipelago.

But the government denies that logging was to blame and has found unlikely support from at least one international conservation group. They said the cause of the landslide likely had more to do with the makeup of central Java, where thousands live in flood-prone areas and farmers have torn down forests to clear agriculture land and plantations.

"Often the knee-jerk reaction to such tragic disasters is to blame them on excessive tree logging,'' said Greg Clough, a spokesman with The Center for International Forestry Research, a conservation group.

"Sure, deforestation may play a small part in flooding,'' he said. "But strong scientific evidence suggests even good forest cover will not prevent flooding in cases like Jember, where reportedly heavy rains fell for several days. Exceptionally long and heavy downfalls saturate the forest soil, making them unable to absorb more water.''

Relatives Friday watched helplessly as bodies were pulled from the rubble days after heavy rain on the main island of Java unleashed landslides and flash floods in the village of Cijeruk and district of Jember, divided by hundreds of kilometers (miles) of mountainous terrain. So far 149 corpses have been found, many of them bloated or decayed, and rescuers said they may have to halt their search in the next 24 hours.

The landslides have reignited the logging issue and pushed it onto the front pages of local papers. The concern has also put the government on the defensive.

"There is no illegal logging case as reported by the media. The disaster is caused by the conversion of many forest areas to become coffee plantations,'' Forestry Minister Malam Kaban said while visiting Jember.

Forest Watch Indonesia and other environmentalists say the government should get tough on logging, especially illegal cutting that contributes to 90 percent of all timber. By some estimates, 75 million hectares of an estimated 120 million hectares of forests in the country have been degraded.

"They should know this kind of thing can happen. This is not the first time that we've seen landslides and flooding,'' said Togu Manurung of Forest Watch Indonesia. "Even though the government has developed a program to combat illegal logging, it's still going on all over including Java,'' he said. "The situation is bad.''

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