New Study Slams Indonesia’s Forest Protection

US National Academy of Sciences says forest is being converted even faster than thought

Indonesia’s tropical forest is being converted to oil palm plantations even faster than was thought, giving rise of the possibility that only 4 percent of forest outside of protected areas will be intact, according to a study by 10 scientists for the US National Academy of Sciences.

The report, available here, completed in March, says that two-thirds of all Indonesian forest outside of protected areas has been leased to oil palm companies, and that by 2020 a third will be in plantations. Scientists from Yale University, Stanford University, the Carnegie Institution for Science at Cranfield University, the University of Virginia, Indiana University and the Santa Fe Institute participated in the study.

Although Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last September pledged to uphold sustainable forest practices, in Jakarta today, a coalition of green groups led by Greenpeace said the moratorium the government had proposed was weak and ineffective. Although the president in a speech to a forest protection association said in November that the government had set up programs to enhance agricultural productivity as well as ensure an adequate stock of staple food, including rice, as well as launching a tree-planting campaign aimed at planting at least 1 billion new trees annually, the government’s plans are largely viewed as a flop.

A Greenpeace spokesman said the ban put in place to protect the forest by the government excludes large tracts of the country’s peatland forests. An earlier review of the maps by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that the moratorium leaves almost 50 percent of Indonesia’s 100 million hectares of natural forest and peatland unprotected. Kalimantan contains a full third of Indonesia’s peatlands, which harbor the most tropical peat carbon worldwide. Clearing and draining these peatlands produce considerable carbon emissions from peat oxidation and burning.

The two-year moratorium came into effect last year as the centerpiece of a deal with Norway, which pledged $1 billion to Indonesia under a UN-backed scheme to reduce emissions from deforestation. Indonesia is often cited as the world’s third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, due mainly to rampant deforestation by the palm oil, mining and paper industries. While globally deforestation accounts for up to 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. In Indonesia, however, that figure is 85 percent, making the country one of the highest emitters in the world.

The research by the team from the US National Academy of Scientists appears to back that up, using high-resolution satellite time-series cameras and socieconomic surveys on the ground to describe industrial oil palm plantations as a rapidly increasing but largely unmeasured source of tropical land cover change, Focusing on agrarian community lands in West Kalimantan, the group assessed previous expansion and projected future land conversion.

Although fire was the primary cause of 93 percent of the deforestation between 1989 and 2008 and 69 percent of net carbon emissions by 2007–2008, the team said, oil palm directly caused 27 percent of total and 40 percent of peatland deforestation.

In 2008, oil palm plantation leases spanned roughly 65 percent of the East Kalimantan region including 62 percent on peatlands and 59 percent of community-managed lands, with only about 10 percent of lease area was planted.

“Projecting business as usual by 2020 roughly 40 percent of regional and 35 percent of community lands are cleared for oil palm, generating 26 percent of net carbon emissions. Intact forest cover is expected to decline to 4 percent and the proportion of emissions sourced from peatlands will increase by 38 percent,” the team said.

Since 1990, according to the scientists’ report, Indonesia has experienced one of the most rapid plantation expansions worldwide. The Agricultural Ministry’s records indicate that from 1990 to 2010, oil palm area increased 600 percent to 7.8 million hectares, with more than 90 percent of the development occurring in Sumatra and Kalimantan, regions that lost roughly 40 percent of their lowland forests between 1990 and 2005.

“As a result of this extensive deforestation, annual greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia—currently among the top 10 national emitters—are sourced predominantly from land cover/land use change,” the report says. “However, the locations, patterns, and land cover sources for oil palm plantation expansion; the extent and distribution of undeveloped oil palm leases pending near-term development; and carbon emissions from oil palm agriculture remain largely undocumented.

That is because while optical remote sensing satellites such as Landsat have sufficient resolution to detect small land cover patches and punctuated land cover change, they are hampered by cloud cover and can’t be used to map carbon stocks. Other technologies such as light detection and ranging and radar, however are effective for mapping aboveground biomass in tropical forests and even below-ground carbon in peatlands.

Since the 1980s, Kalimantan’s intact forests have experienced massive degradation from logging in federal timber concessions, the report states, although forest degradation from logging is difficult to detect.

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