An aerial view of Sumatra Island

August 12, 2010

I joined a Greenpeace tour flying over Sumatra Island to take pictures of their protest over forest destruction.

Five photographers and a TV cameraman set off early in the morning, while it was still dark, in a new, single-propeller aircraft. No one told me it would be nearly three hours to get to Jambi on a small plane with no toilet. Luckily for me I had an empty bottle as an emergency measure.

This was the first time I’ve taken aerial shots, so I took so many types of pictures. I took every single detail that caught my eye — forest, reflected light from the sun during sunrise, palm oil plantations, river, sea,  houses, everything.  When we started to take pictures, all five photographers jostled around one opened window. The wind blew very hard, pushing the glass against my face. After one hour, one of the other photographers gave up, and had to take a rest after throwing up all his breakfast. That made me happy – more room for me to take pictures.

Photographers and cameramen crowd around an open window to take pictures over Sumatra Island August 4, 2010.  REUTERS/Beawiharta

In the afternoon when we flew back to Jakarta, I checked my pictures and the dominant images I had were of deforestation, palm oil plantation and acacia forest for paper.  One image stands out to me, a  clearing in the tropical rain forest in a heart shape, my heart is broken for the loss of the tropical rain forest.

An aerial view of a clearing at a forest in Indonesia's Sumatra island, August 5, 2010. Indonesia and Australia launched a A$30 million project to fight deforestation in Sumatra as part of efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and boost a planned forest-carbon trading scheme on March this year. Indonesia, like Brazil, is on the front line of efforts to curb deforestation that is a major contributor to mankind's greenhouse gas emissions that scientists blame for heating up the planet. REUTERS/Beawiharta

Acacia forest and palm oil plantations dominated my pictures. So that’s how it remained in my mind: Sumatra had recently become just palm oil plantations and acacia forest.

I’ve covered Sumatra forests when they were on fire and that’s routine for me.  Since 2000, any time Singapore or Malaysia are covered in a haze of smoke, I set off to photograph the fires. At that time, the fire was always in two places, peat land or common land bordering the acacia forest. Who burns the forest?  I don’t know.

During my trips to Riau and Jambi province on Sumatra island in 2006 and 2007, I got  many pictures of burning forest, burning land, but there was no-one I could ask and certainly no-one was telling who was to blame for starting the fires.  So my picture caption just said “A man stands in front of a forest fire.”

In 2000:

An Indonesian plantation worker sits on a tree trunk at a palm oil plantation in Kampar, around 100 kilometres west of Pekanbaru the capital city of Riau province March 9, 2000.  REUTERS/Beawiharta

In 2006:

A man stands in front of a forest fire in Pelalawan, in the Indonesian province of Riau, October 6, 2006.   REUTERS/Beawiharta

Mid 2010:

An aerial view of deforestation at Indonesia's Sumatra island, August 5, 2010.  REUTERS/Beawiharta

I still don’t know who set those fires. But from the air, what I see today is vast acacia forests and palm oil plantations spreading across Sumatra. The tropical rain forest is no longer dominant, while acacia forest and palm oil plantations have replaced it. Does anyone care?

An aerial view of deforestation at Indonesia's Sumatra island, August 5, 2010.  REUTERS/Beawiharta

So as I sit in our luxurious aircraft heading back to Jakarta, I think about Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Papua. These three places that were covered by tropical rain forest in 2000. And now I wonder what they will look like 20 years from now?  Or even in 2020?  And that’s when it really hits me, a father of three, that my kids, and their kids in turn may never see our tropical forest.


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to be eyewitness the human greed that destroys tropical forests without a thought for future generations

Posted by Kasan | Report as abusive

Feel sad knowing the truth of the forest lost, seeing these images makes me wonder how’s the feeling of the destroyers?

Posted by findiken | Report as abusive

Russell, Thanks for appreciate my pictures

Posted by beaw | Report as abusive

Very powerful story and images. The last image is especially grim but you handle all the images in a balanced way. Always interesting to hear what the photographers have to go through as well to get their shots. I hope the one photographer felt better after heaving. Thanks for your work. It’s inspiring to a young photojournalist like myself.

Posted by SkyeSuther | Report as abusive

Tragic. Human nature is perverse. We have the intellect but not the altruism to stop at need as opposed to want. Its our children who won’t ever know the feeling of being in a rain forest. And all the wildlife that dies with the death of an organism as large as a rain forest.

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[…] aerial view of deforestation on Sumatra. 2/an-aerial-view-of-sumatra-island/ (via @Discovery_Earth, […]

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