Earlier this week, a police officer from a coastal city in the Indonesian province of West Papua stood in court accused of being the mastermind behind a massive illegal logging ring – one that had stripped the Raja Ampat Islands of West Papua of vast quantities of a rare and precious timber known as merbau. His punishment? Just two years in prison and a fine of US$4,000. 

Labora Sitorus faced charges of illegal logging, fuel smuggling and money laundering, but a judge in a West Papua court dismissed the latter charges, despite evidence showing that US$127 million had passed through Sitorus’s accounts, some of it linked to illegal timber shipments. But even on the count of illegal logging, Sitorus received a relatively light sentence – a fine of US$4,000 and a two-year prison term. 

“The shockingly lenient verdict is an appalling indictment of Indonesia’s utter failure to tackle corruption within the forestry sector.”

In a press release yesterday, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) commented: "The shockingly lenient verdict is an appalling indictment of Indonesia’s utter failure to tackle corruption within the forestry sector, and the strongest evidence of a cover-up that the EIA has witnessed for a long time."

The following EIA footage shows illegal loggers at work supplying timber for Sitorus's company PT Rotua.

With its 94.4 million hectares of forests, Indonesia is the third most forest-covered country in the world (following Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo). Forty percent of these forests lie within protected areas, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Illegal logging poses a serious threat to these forests, as well as the thousands of plant and animal species that reside in them. Some of the species at risk in the areas in which Sitorus’s logging operations took place include the red, Wilson's and Western Parotia birds of paradiseBlyth's hornbillscassowaries, as well as endemic species of both tree and land kangaroos.

21 02 2014 Tree Kangaroo
Tree kangaroos are just one of species threatened by the destruction of West Papua's forests. Image: Richard Ashurst, Flickr

And it’s not just the forests themselves, but the aquatic environments surrounding the islands that are affected. "The Raja Ampat archipelago of West Papua, in which Labora Sitorus's logging operations were centred, is a potential World Heritage Site candidate," noted Jago Wadley, Senior Forest Campaigner for the EIA. "The network of 1,500 tropical forested islands has been described as the 'Jewel in the Crown of the Coral Triangle', hosting perhaps the highest recorded marine biodiversity on earth. This marine biodiversity is impacted by siltation of the coral following logging."

The loss of biodiversity as a result of illegal logging will have huge, spiraling repercussions on the region’s flora and fauna. Of course, deforestation also impacts on global warming and climate change

Groups like the EIA and their partner Forest Watch Indonesia are concerned that the SVLK, Indonesia’s new mandatory traceability scheme intended to ensure the legality Indonesia’s domestic and export timber markets, was insufficiently robust to protect the forests from Sitorus and the 33 other police officers who allegedly received money from him during the time in which the illegal logging took place.

"The deeply compromised case against Labora Sitorus and the subsequent failure of the judiciary is a major warning that, despite all of the commitments and agreements the government has made to combat illegal logging and the associated illegal trade, Indonesia has still to prove its commitment to enforce the law against forest crime," the press release read.

Indonesia was the first country in Asia to enter into Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) negotiations with the European Union, in May 2011. However, if corrupt individuals like Sitorus continue to get off so lightly, the illegal logging trade will likely continue to thrive, posing major risks for the environment and wildlife in the region.

Top header image: CIFOR, Twitter