Deforestation in Indonesia

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Sumatran Orangutan in its native forest habitat. Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty

Deforestation is ongoing in many regions of the globe. While the public’s attention was long held by forest loss in the Amazon Basin, there has been a recent switch of focus to Southeast Asia, particularly towards Indonesia.

Concerns

Indonesia holds almost 40% of all of Southeast Asia’s forest cover, and is a diversity hotspot with such fantastic creatures as tigers, pygmy elephants, Sumatran orangutans, and Javan rhinoceroses.

In addition, Indonesia forests hold 1,500 species of birds and a third of the world’s insects. Deforestation means a direct loss of habitat for those species. More indirectly, it fragments habitat, and provides access for poachers and development.

Indonesia is also covered with very large peatland expanses covered with tropical forest. These peatlands accumulate large amounts of slowly decomposing vegetation material in a water-logged soil layer up to 65 feet thick. This layer holds large stores of carbon. When these peatlands are drained to convert into agricultural lands and plantations, it initiates the release of massive quantities of carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Fires started naturally or intentionally to clear forests can burn through peatland for months, unleashing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The smoke released by those fires affects air quality throughout the region, causing air transportation delays and respiratory illnesses all the way into Singapore and Malaysia.

Trends

Indonesia now leads the world in the rate of deforestation. Between 2000 and 2012, 15 million acres of forest were cut or burned, about the size of West Virginia. The rate of forest loss has increased between 2010 and 2012, with over 2 million acres of forest cleared annually. As a direct consequence of this increased deforestation, Indonesia is now number three in the world in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, behind only China and the US.

But unlike China and the US, 85% of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions don’t come primarily from industry and transportation, but from forest and peatland destruction.

The main land uses leading to deforestation are fiber plantations (for example, rattan), pulp-paper and sawn timber plantations, logging, and palm oil plantations. This last activity has increased considerably in the last decade. Indonesia is the world’s top producer of palm oil, a commodity used in a variety of consumer goods and a market worth $50 billion a year. In order to produce palm oil, large acreages of land need to be cleared of forests, oil palm trees are planted in rows, and the palm fruits are harvested and processed to extract the oil.

When recent deforestation activities were examined in Sumatra (the largest island entirely in Indonesia), land clearing was by far dominated by private companies developing oil palm plantations.

Conservation Efforts

Forest protection policies exist in Indonesia, but they are ill enforced. Indonesia outlawed new logging and plantation concessions in the primary forests in 2011, and since then deforestation there has actually increased.

A number of private funds and nongovernmental organization have developed and implemented a network of conservation lands in order to protect the remaining primary forests and peatlands.

These efforts led to some clear successes, although they are still threatened by the lack of law enforcement and the conservation groups’ inability to prevent illegal logging.

Many solutions to the problem of deforestation in Indonesia lie with the palm oil industry. There are ongoing efforts to increase palm oil yields from existing plantations, through better practices and improved palm tree genetics. This would decrease the amount of new land needed for plantations. Large commercial buyers in the palm oil market could demand from producers that their oil does not contribute to the loss of forest or peatland. Finally, if consumers are made aware of the issues associated with palm oil, they may choose products that contain alternative oils or at least palm oil that has been sourced responsibly.

Sources

Harball, E. 2014. Deforestation in Indonesia Is Double the Government's Official Rate. Scientific American.

Lee et al. 2014. Environmental Impacts of Large-Scale Oil Palm Enterprises Exceed that of Smallholdings in Indonesia. Conservation Letters 7.

Union of Concerned Scientists. 2013. Palm Oil and Global Warming Fact Sheet.