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Timber trouble in Aceh

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To the thousands of homeless living here, the planks of wood piled high on the sandy dockside are a symbol of hope: new houses are on the way. But to the activists working to save Indonesia's vanishing tropical forests, the same planks spell trouble.

As Aceh begins to rebuild its battered coastal communities after the Dec. 26 tsunami that destroyed tens of thousands of homes, questions are being raised about the raw materials for reconstruction. Most pressing for environmentalists: Where will builders find the wood needed for new houses, schools, and fishing boats?

The answer, many fear, is Indonesia's ravaged tropical forests, including those that are legally protected from the logger's chainsaw. The UN warned Monday that reconstruction efforts in tsunami- stricken Asian countries posed a threat to the region's forests, advising governments to guard against illegal felling of trees.

Aceh is of particular concern. Its extensive rain forest is a treasure trove of rare species and diverse habitats. Campaigners in Indonesia are urging international aid groups to take note. One option on the table is sourcing certified foreign lumber for reconstruction and asking donors to send logs to Aceh as tsunami aid.

"International organizations in Aceh are bringing in lots of money. They should use part of this money to buy [imported] wood to help rebuild houses for the refugees ... and they should be aware of the ecological situation," says Elfian Effendi, executive director of Greenomics Indonesia, an environmental think tank in Jakarta.

Shipping timber to Indonesia may sound like carrying coals to Newcastle, but green activists are calling on timber- producing countries such as Australia, Norway, and Sweden to do just that in order to safeguard Indonesian forests. The issue has been aired at meetings between Indonesian officials and Western donors, but some critics remains skeptical that it will work.

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