In dengue-infested Indonesian village: clinic or trees?

November 30, 2009

It was as I lay in a Singapore hospital bed — ablaze with dengue fever but shivering in a sweat that chilled my aching bones — that I began to understand why villagers in a remote part of Indonesia would trade their forest for decent health services.

Teluk Meranti is a tiny, 800-family fishing hamlet in Riau province of Sumatra island in Indonesia, where dengue is common but health services are poor and infrastructure is very basic.

With a monthly income of around $200, the average Teluk Meranti dweller doesn’t have much — but they do have customary rights to an enormous tract of rainforest in the lush Kampar Peninsula, home to rare flora and fauna.

It’s this forest that Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited (APRIL), one of the biggest logging firms in Asia, wants to log and replant with fast-growing acacia trees. The firm has a government concession to operate in Kampar but needs cooperation from local villagers before work can begin.

In a campaign, the company is offering to build a road, repair a mosque, organise clinics — even traditional Islamic circumcisions for boys — in exchange for rights to their forest.

Some villagers want to protect their traditional forests but others would happily trade if it meant that the next time their child gets dengue, there will be a good local clinic and a road leading to it.

In the lead up to global climate talks in Copenhagen, where reducing deforestation will be a central issue, it can seem tragic that villagers would sign over valuable forest in exchange for good quality services that many say the government should be providing anyway. But as I lay in my sweaty hospital sheets, enduring that distinctive bone-crushing sensation that only dengue delivers, I began to understand why offers from a logging company can seem like the best thing going in remote Riau.

When my condition began deteriorating fast and a blood transfusion seemed a real possibility, I was able to hop on a plane to Singapore, safe in the knowledge that my insurer would pay for excellent medical care.

In Teluk Meranti, where I saw children bathing downstream from a squat toilet on a platform over the river, most will never get near a plane, much less fly overseas for medical treatment.

An unrelenting campaign by environmental activists in Greenpeace has been followed by a government review of APRIL’s permit to log the Teluk Meranti forest.

There is a possibility APRIL will have their permit revoked but if they do not, their social workers will be back in town offering to fill the significant gaps in social and medical care.

I have since recovered from the dengue fever I caught in Teluk Meranti. I’ve checked out of my Singapore hospital and returned to my comfortable Jakarta home. For many Teluk Meranti people, however, conditions are still rotten and the temptation to trade trees for decent services grows ever stronger.

(Photos: Children bathe in a polluted river in the Indonesian village of Teluk Meranti, in Sumatra’s Riau province, November 11, 2009. REUTERS/ Beawiharta // Children walk to school along the main road of Teluk Meranti village, November 11, 2009, REUTERS/ Beawiharta)


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In a world in which first-world consumers paid appropriate levies for timber resources, instead of bargain-basement exploitation rates, villagers like these would have trees, mosques and clinics. There are plenty of first-world forestry-resource communities, in places as far apart as Japan and Austria, where forest products are appropriately priced. In these communities, villagers have access to a full range of community services. Here’s a global equity issue that can only be resolved by first-world change.

Posted by setiwono | Report as abusive

Would it not be nice to see all the well meaning Greenpeace activists donate for infrastructure in these desperate villages and for those at the Copenhagen summit to act on their expressed intentions to help developing countries?

Posted by helen creagh | Report as abusive

True that Setiwono.

Posted by eddieblack | Report as abusive

[…] River and have read that the company is offering to provide for these needs. As noted in this blog story for Reuters, In Dengue Infested Indonesian Village, Clinic or Trees, it’s a difficult issue to consider when you start weighing the importance of access to […]

Posted by The Bono Waves: Man vs. Wild « Hey Misster | Report as abusive