Volume 18 Issue 16
In 2011, the Indonesian government, responding to the rampant deforestation of the archipelago’s tropical rainforests and peatlands, imposed a moratorium on the logging of any new concessions in undisturbed forest areas.
Yet recent satellite imagery monitoring Indonesia’s deforestation rate shows that the country has lost over 10,000 square miles of forested lands since the moratorium went into effect, an area slightly larger than the state of Maryland. This is in addition to the nearly 96,000 square miles of rainforest lost between 1990 and 2011, an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom.
The trend has awarded Indonesia, whose rainforest is the third largest globally and home to 17 percent of the planet’s species, the notorious distinction of being the world’s No. 1 deforester, eclipsing Brazil in 2014. Largely to blame are the land-hungry palm oil and paper pulp plantations that Indonesia has come to rely in recent decades in order to grow its economy.
“In fact, there was a marked increase of deforestation after 2010,” says Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist and founder of Borneo Futures. “You get a very rapid expansion of the oil palm industry into forest areas, so if a moratorium was called in 2011, it didn’t seem to have an impact on the oil palm sector at least,” said Meijaard.
The plantations clear the land by burning the rainforests and peat bogs, not only destroying habitat for critically endangered species like the orangutan and the Sumatran rhino but also releasing vast volumes of smoke and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In 2015, due to dry conditions exacerbated by an El Niño event, the largest wildfire in Indonesian history, attributed to industrial burns, released 1,750 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, almost twice the annual emissions of Germany.
Even though emissions from forest and land disturbance only account for a quarter of total global emissions, Indonesia leads the world in forest-related emissions, releasing 240 to 447 million tons of CO2 annually from these activities.
Despite these trends, Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry states that the deforestation rate has been decreasing since 2015. “There has been a decline in deforestation in production forests, from 63% [of total deforestation] in 2014 to 44% in 2017,” said Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar.
Critically, this is because the Indonesian government views production forests, man-made industrial forests planted for timber harvesting, as reforestation. This is at odds with many research institutes and conservation think tanks, such as the World Resource Institute, that sees production forests as a form of deforestation because they are a human replacement of the natural forest cover.
The disagreement over definitions could impede Indonesia’s access to international funding for its reforestation efforts, such as the $1 billion Norway has pledged as a part of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program, and the $100 billion the signers of the Paris Accords pledged to donate to the Green Climate Fund to assist developing counties in fighting climate change.
Yet at the moment, Indonesia has only received 12% of Norway’s promised contribution, and only $10 billion has thus far been given to the Green Climate Fund. This is compared to the nearly $30 billion Indonesia earns annually from paper pulp, palm oil, and coal industries, the very enterprises that are most destructive to the forests.
“The amount of money that’s on the table for conserving forests is not nearly enough to compete with the amount of money that is changing hands every day for clearing forests for palm oil and paper pulp,” says Jonah Busch, an environmental economist and fellow at the Center for Global Development.
Despite the problems with the moratorium and the muddled definition of “deforestation”, Busch thinks that, at least in the short term, something is better than nothing. “The very important steps in the right direction that Indonesia has taken are unfairly characterized as failures because the whole big ship has not turned around yet. If there hadn’t been a moratorium, deforestation might have been higher.”
- Coca, Nithin. “Despite Government Pledges, Ravaging of Indonesia’s Forests Continues”. Yale Environment 360. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 22 March 2018. Web. 30 March 2018.
- Harball, Elizabeth. “Deforestation in Indonesia is Double the Government’s Rate.” E&E News Sustainability. Scientific American, 30 June 2014. Web. 30 March 2018.
- Jong, Hans Nicholas. “Is a plantation a forest? Indonesia says yes, as it touts a drop in deforestation.” Mongabay. Mongabay, 31 January 2018. Web. 1 April 2018.