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Indonesia Floods Cause Political Backlash - 2003-11-05

Rescuers in Indonesia are losing hope of finding any more survivors from Monday's devastating flash flood. A political backlash is growing against the illegal loggers who are believed to have contributed to the disaster.

Indonesian officials say as many as 200 people may have died when a wall of water thundered through a town in the north of Sumatra island.

Rescuers were still picking through the rubble of the town of Bukit Lawang on Wednesday morning, but there are few hopes of finding any more survivors.

Politicians and environmentalists are increasingly placing the blame for the flood on environmental degradation. Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri said Wednesday that the floods were "nature's wrath."

Longgena Ginting of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment says this disaster may jolt politicians into action, but he is pessimistic about the long-term environmental picture in Indonesia.

"The government basically fail to address illegal logging because they fail to solve the fundamental root of illegal logging, which is over-capacity of timber processing and corruption is endemic," said Longgena Ginting.

The flood originated in what is theoretically one of Asia's largest nature reserves, the Gunung Leuser National Park. Despite a strict ban on cutting timber in the park, illegal loggers have stripped vast areas, upsetting the ecological balance. Heavy rains over the past several days swept tons of piled up logs and mud into Bukit Lawang.

Attempts to curb illegal logging have in the past run up against powerful vested interests, including the army and a number of influential politicians who have large stakes in the trade.

Mr. Ginting says 80 percent of timber cut in Indonesia, one of the world's largest exporters of both raw timber and semi-finished products, comes from illegal sources.

He says the only hope is for the public to put pressure on politicians for change. However, he sees little hope that similar environmental disasters can be avoided in the short term.