A signboard for the firm Arara Abadi hangs amid a deforested landscape on… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Teluk Meranti, Indonesia — This isolated Sumatran village, where monkeys frolic in the jungle canopy and residents take easy evening swims in the mud-colored Kampar River, is the unlikely center of a tense international battle of wills.
Logging lobbyists, environmental activists and even foreign diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, have visited in recent months. Job fairs, door-to-door visits and community meetings have become a constant.
It's a little like the New Hampshire presidential primary season, in an equatorial climate.
What's at stake for villagers, and the rest of the world, is the future of the community's lush and benevolent forest and the environmental consequences of its possible demise.
A Singapore-based firm wants to carve out some of the 1.7 million acres and replace them with an acacia tree plantation to be harvested for pulp and paper.
The company has been granted a permit by the Indonesian government to try to negotiate a land-use deal with villagers. Though the residents of Teluk Meranti don't actually own the land, the government acknowledges their financial interest in the forest, which they and their ancestors have used for generations.
Across Sumatra, scores of villages face similar decisions: whether to make deals that would allow companies to replace residents' beloved virgin and second-growth forests with highly profitable palm oil and acacia plantations.
Since the 1980s, the amount of forest land in Sumatra -- the world's sixth-largest island, which once contained more animal species than the Amazon -- has been slashed more than 70%.
Teluk Meranti, two hours by plane northwest of Jakarta, the capital, is in Riau province, often called ground zero for climate change. As companies log and then burn the remaining forest to create plantations, huge amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere.
Studies show that the carbon released by logging in Brazil and Indonesia exceeds that of all the buses, planes and cars on the planet. Though Brazil contributes more carbon, Indonesia is clearing its forest at the fastest rate on Earth, and studies done by Greenpeace and other organizations show that Riau's peat lands contain some of the world's highest concentrations of carbon per acre.
A hub for advocates
As the villagers here mull their future, people around the world are watching closely: One-fourth of all greenhouse gas emissions are the direct result of tropical forest clearance, studies show.
At meetings underway in Copenhagen, world leaders are seeking to reach a climate-change accord that in 2012 would replace the Kyoto Protocol and include a framework for compensating countries for protecting their forests.
Proposals include providing developing countries with financial assistance for reducing their emissions from deforestation, and giving such nations credits they could sell on an international market to companies that have exceeded carbon emission caps.
In Teluk Meranti, a panel of two dozen village elders, after consulting with residents, will vote in several months on whether to allow the Singapore firm, Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd., to develop the forest.
The issue has transformed the sleepy, out-of-the-way spot into a hub for company advocates, environmental groups and foreign government officials.
Whisked in by helicopter, lobbyists from Asia Pacific Resources entice villagers with their pitches. They tell residents they don't want to kill the forest, but rather will work with villagers to ensure its preservation by selectively logging land that won't support wildlife.
The outsiders can build new schools and businesses, said Wendy Poon, an Asia Pacific Resources spokeswoman. "We can [also] help them develop alternative livelihoods -- like how to rear cows and farm vegetables for commercial produce, so they won't ruin the forest," she said.
Greenpeace activists have also set up shop, imploring residents not to sell their forest for short-term profit.
"Many communities are wooed into thinking only about the short term, the money-for-land bargain, without fully comprehending the long-term consequences," said Paul Winn, a Greenpeace forest campaigner.
Environmentalists are also trying to show the villagers how pulp and paper plantations disrupt things close to home.
They point to another company's project upriver, where bulldozers carry logs like huge praying mantises and build canals to drain the sodden forest, allowing acidic water to move into rivers, killing fish.
Things came to a head recently when regional police tried to shut down a Greenpeace "climate defenders" camp near a patch of endangered forest near Teluk Meranti. When officers tried to close the camp, according to Greenpeace and village administrator Ali Mursidin, scores of villagers arrived and demanded, successfully, that the camp be left alone.