“The loggers are close”, Stéphane says to me in a whisper. “Five of them on the track ahead. And many more in the bush working…” We are crouched behind a fallen tree, and both of us are nervous. We’ve been stalking these illegal loggers for two days, but we’re in a precarious position if any of them now spot us.
I raise my head slowly and peek through a gap in the leaves. Two men are sitting on a felled log and eating. I can hear one of them cackling at a joke. Three other men are ambling towards us. I’m about to suggest we find a better hide, but the men then veer off the track towards where a chainsaw has just started up again.
“How many men do you think”?
Stéphane puts down his binoculars. “Eez too hard to say”, he says in his thick French accent. “Eez a lot – At least 15 men. But maybe many more.”
I drop back down behind the log. “So what do you suggest we do?”
Stéphane frowns. “Eez no easy option. So many men. If we try and catch a couple of them, the rest will just overpower us. Who knows this deep in Jungle what they would do to us? There is no law here…” His voice trails off.
It’s been a tough journey just getting here. We’ve battled through a treacherous peat swamp where every 100 meters becomes a mission. We were both near giving up from exhaustion and dehydration a few hours earlier, and it was only the distant whining of chainsaws that kept us pushing on. Now that we’ve found the illegal loggers however, the challenge becomes what to do now.
Things here are not easy for Conservationists or media. South Sumatra on the outside promotes its National Parks and Conservation efforts, but in reality, it is just a sham while they log their precious rainforest and convert the land to palm oil and rubber plantations. Their Army, Police and Forestry Ministry do their best to keep NGOs and Journalists away from such places, thereby protecting the big corporations that are sucking the life-blood out of this state.
Last week we tried to enter another National Park legally, and Police detained three of my men as a result. It wasn’t until the US Consulate was contacted that the Police backed down. It was a salutary lesson. Government agencies here do all they can to hide the dirty business of illegal logging.
As a result, here we are just fifty meters from a group of men chopping down trees in a protected area, and yet we are considered the criminals. If we film the logging operation and hand the evidence over to Authorities, we’d likely be arrested for trespassing into a National Park without a permit. If the loggers catch us, they could equally hand us over to a local Army unit with the same result.
It would seem that the only thing we can do is film the operation as best we can, and spread the word of what is really happening here. We’ve been working with WALHI, a local NGO – perhaps we could also give them the video to follow up with the government. Not that I have any faith in the South Sumatran government doing anything aside from covering it all up.
It also begs the question of how good would our footage be? We could wander through their camp at night using NVG and get some video, but it would be far from compelling. Yet to go sneaking through there in daylight would be suicide. Most of what is happening is deep in the Jungle, and we’d be getting within meters of the loggers in order to film their faces and operations. If one of them stumbles on our hide we’d be busted.
“There is one option”, says Stéphane, breaking the silence. “It is high risk. But it may just work. We are a long way from any road. It is impossible for any Police or Army unit to come here quickly to arrest us. Also there is no cell coverage for the loggers to get word out. It becomes a question of what will the loggers do if they see us? I don’t think they will try and detain us. They are here illegally as well, so they will be scared of us.”
“So what are you suggesting?” I’m not sure where Stéphane is going with this.
“We just need to get footage and GPS coordinates of their logs, chainsaws and camp, and we need to get away from here without them detaining or shooting us. So I think we should just walk right through the middle of their camp like we own it. We film everything. And we leave.”
I look incredulously at Stéphane. He spent 15 years in 1er Regiment, France’s most elite military unit, so he’s used to working in challenging situations, but without weapons, such a plan is high-risk indeed.
“And what if they catch us?”
A sly smile crosses Stéphane’s chiseled face. “If they catch us, we are fucked. But look at them”, and he points towards the two men sitting down eating. “They have been working since 6am this morning in 40 degree heat and they are tired. They won’t want a fight. They will be surprised to see us and there will be confusion. That gives us a chance to get our footage and slip back into the Jungle before any of them really know what happened.”
“So we jut walk up and film it?”
“Like we own it Pete.” I shake my head. But who am I to argue with a former Commando…
Half an hour later and we are poised to move. I am shaking from nervousness at what we are about to attempt. I pull on my rucksack and adjust the straps. Just 50 meters separates us from the Logger’s position.
“Go hard or go home”, Stéphane whispers to me, and he starts marching off towards the loggers. He is crazy, I think to myself, and I step out from behind the tree and start following him.
We have barely made it 5 meters and there is shouting ahead of us. A man comes stumbling out from the bush. I lift my hand and wave at him. He stares at me for several seconds, trying no doubt to figure out what is this white man doing here.
“Keep walking”, Stéphane says to me confidently.
The man gestures towards the forest, and suddenly there is pandemonium up ahead. People are coming out of the jungle from all directions and on seeing us, start running away – Some cross the creek on a makeshift bridge and scarper into the peat swamp. Some run along the track away from us yelling, while other disappear back into the Jungle from whence they came. “The rats are running”, yells Stéphane and he starts to jog towards the loggers.
I hustle along the track and then stop in disbelief. Before me lies total destruction. The Jungle here is all but gone. What remains is a labyrinth of tracks leading back into the Jungle, now reduced to shrubs and bushes. Every track has a series of small logs forming a railway-like structure that the harvested logs are dragged along.
A chainsaw lies on its side, carelessly thrown on the ground from a fleeing Logger. “Make sure you get all this”, I say to the Cameraman who is busy filming. I walk along one of the tracks and it diverges into other tracks. I start coming across felled trees waiting to be dragged out. Probably cut down today while we were making our way to this area, I think to myself.
Eventually I come out to an area of campsites – Wooden frames and plastic tarpaulins forming a series of makeshift living quarters. Cooking supplies. Clothes. Gasoline for the chainsaws – They’ve been living here for some time.
Further on and I come to mountains of lumber piled up. One pile alone has over 150 logs all stacked neatly, ready to be lowered into the water and transported out. The creek is the method they use for moving them – Something I’d suspected after visiting a river town nearby full of allegedly illegally harvested lumber.
Stéphane by now has given up chasing the loggers and comes marching back to the campsite. “People have to see this to believe it”, he says to me angrily, gesturing at the destruction all around us.
I’ve got mixed emotions. I’m glad we’ve managed to get footage proving illegal logging is happening here, but it doesn’t make the scene any easier to take in. As a Conservationist, what lies here is nothing short of Environmental Desecration.
Illegal logging in South Sumatra is a complex issue. But the stark reality is that the Government, Police, Army and Forestry Ministry are all complicit in it. For too long they have valued logging and Palm Oil plantations over their Conservation Estates. The result is that today, less than 10% of their original Jungle remains, and that now is also under threat.
“Lets go”, I say to Stéphane. “I’ve seen enough.”