A recent study revealed that the Indonesian government has been telling lies about its rate of forest loss. The study found that between 2000 and 2003 the rate of deforestation in Indonesia was about one million hectares per year. In the years 2011 and 2012, the rate doubled to about two million hectares per year.
The researchers, who were led by the University of Maryland and received help from Google and NASA, published their findings in Science magazine in November 2013. Part of their work included synthesising 12 years of satellite data to produce a Global Forest Change map.
A video of a presentation organised by Google’s Earth Outreach is available here. During the presentation, the lead researcher, Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland, talks about deforestation in Indonesia:
Going over to Indonesia, another hot spot. Indonesia’s the bookend to Brazil, and it has the highest annual increase in forest cover loss over the study period, of around 1,000 square kilometres per year. And this is coincident with you know, in 2011 they instituted a deforestation moratorium meant to mimic in some sense the Brazilian effort, and the news in this study is that the first full year of our results, inside the moratorium was the highest forest loss in Indonesia. So Indonesia has this ramping up of forest loss.
A lot of our preliminary discussions were speculating there’s this perverse incentive when you try to send the alarm out that there’s going to be a halt to deforestation it can actually accelerate deforestation. That’s not a confirmed conclusion, but we do see here in some of these, this peninsula, area here in Riau province, in Indonesia, deep peatland soils, this is a wetland and a ring of clearing in 2012, new concessions that are being cleared. You see this in a lot of the wetlands in Indonesia. As they’ve exhausted the upland resources, they are going down into the wetlands.
And the patch size in the clearings of the wetlands are industrial scale, big change.
Strictly speaking, Indonesia’s moratorium never was a “deforestation moratorium” – it was a moratorium on new concessions. But Hansen’s point remains valid. Indonesia’s rate of deforestation has increased since the moratorium was announced.
This short video shows the dramatic rate of forest loss in Riau province from 2000-2012:
According to the Ministry of Forestry the rate of deforestation in Indonesia is currently 450,000 hectares per year. But, as Avi Mahaningtyas, an adviser to the Climate and Land Use Alliance, pointed out to the Jakarta Post, how this figure is calculated is something of a mystery:
“The government has never disclosed the methodology they use to calculate the annual number of total forest loss in the country, which according to them is only around 450,000 hectares.”
Predictably, the Ministry of Forestry is defensive. The problem with the study, according to Hadi Daryanto, the secretary-general at the Ministry of Forestry, is that it doesn’t take into account Indonesia’s “temporary deforestation”:
“The scientists only look at satellite images of areas where logging activities are taking place, without putting the country’s temporary deforestation into consideration.
Temporary deforestation is, for example, logging activities within the HTI [Industrial Forest Permit] areas, which will be restored after the timber harvesting period concludes. The country harvests only 200,000 hectares of HTI area per year. They should not classify timber harvesting as forest loss.”
In a response to Daryanto’s comment in the Jakarta Post, conservation scientist Erik Meijaard writes that, “‘Temporary deforestation’ surely deserves a prize for the euphemism of the year.” What is actually happening is that forests are being cleared to make way for industrial tree plantations of fast-growing eucalyptus or acacia, or oil palm.
Miejaard points out that the problem is that the Ministry of Forestry mixes up the terms “forest” and “plantations”. He writes that,
Plantations are established in areas that were once covered in natural forest. In other words, plantations replace diverse ancient tropical rainforests with mono-cultural strands of mostly exotic species, such as introduced forms of Acacia or Eucalyptus.
In ecological terms, deforestation in natural forest areas is never temporary. It either occurs or it does not. There are no half measures.
In response to a question about the “forest gain” that shows up on the Global Forest Change map, Matthew Hansen explains that,
I’d say that most of the forest gain that we see in this product is plantation forestry related. It’s very intensively managed, at lower latitudes it comes out really fast, that’s the idea. Acacia rotations in Indonesia being four to five years.
Elfian Effendi of Greenomics Indonesia points out that oil palm plantations in Papua are included as “forest”:
The Global Forest Cover Change map has mapped out oil palm plantations owned by Sinarmas Group in Papua as forest cover gains.
Hansen explains that the map does not differentiate between forests and plantations, “It’s just the biophysical presence or absence of tree cover,” he says. He adds that in his lab he has more data (not in yet the public domain), which shows that, “a substantial portion of these changes are inside primary forests”.
So, the Global Forest Change map includes Indonesia’s industrial plantations in its definition of “forest”. And the deforestation figures would be even worse if oil palm plantations and fast-growing tree plantations were taken out (which of course they should be, but with the decision in Warsaw to allow governments to decide for themselves how they define “forests” under REDD, that’s unlikely to happen).