In this Friday, June 28, 2013 photo, a keeper gives milk to a baby Sumatran elephant, who was found by villagers alone at a palm oil plantation earlier this month, at an elephant sanctuary in Aceh Besar, Indonesia.
Indonesia now holds the dubious title of the nation with the highest deforestation rate of primary-forest lands, beating out Brazil, which has been the historical leader. This has great significance for Indonesia's greenhouse-gas emissions, since huge stores of planet-warming carbon and methane are contained in tropical forests, as well as biodiversity, given the high concentration of rare and endangered species living there.
The Indonesia government declared a moratorium on deforestation in May 2011, but a new study shows that it has had little effect so far. The study, which was published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that the year with the greatest losses was 2012, after the moratorium was declared. Between 2000 to 2012, the loss of Indonesian primary-forest lands totaled more than 6.02 million hectares per year.
The high rate of deforestation of primary-forest lands — defined as mature natural forests that retain their original composition, and have not been completely cleared and replanted in recent history — is the reason why Indonesia ranks as the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.
Huge amounts of carbon and methane, which is another greenhouse gas, are stored as organic matter in Indonesia's wetland forests (known as peatlands); trees and soil in other parts of the country also store carbon. Chopping down trees and burning peatlands to clear the way for palm-oil plantations or other commercial uses releases that stored carbon and methane into the atmosphere, where it helps increase global temperatures.
As the study notes, primary forests are the largest aboveground stores of carbon in the world, with even more carbon and methane buried in peatlands. The study found that deforestation is increasing rapidly in peatlands, which threatens to boost Indonesia's global-warming contribution even more.
Led by a scientist working for the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry while on leave at the University of Maryland, the study seeks to settle the debate on just how much land-clearing is taking place in Indonesian forests. It has long been known that pristine forests there are being cleared to make way for economically lucrative palm-oil plantations and logging operations, but there are conflicting reports on how significant the problem is.
The study uses satellite data to arrive at its estimates.
“I think the take-home message is these forests are under a lot of stress," said Matthew Hansen, a researcher at the University of Maryland, who co-authored the study. "They’re more valuable converted to other land uses, and there’s no question about that.”
For example, the Ministry of Forestry reported an annual rate of 0.4 million hectares per year of forest loss from 2009 to 2011. However, the study found that the rate of annual primary-forest loss is actually far higher than that, at about 0.84 million hectares per year in 2012. This rate places Indonesia ahead of Brazil, which has long been the top-ranking country for deforestation. The rate is also higher than UN estimates.
“To think that Indonesia lost more forest than Brazil when they have less in reserve than Brazil is kind of devastating really," Hansen told Mashable in an interview. Indonesia has just one-quarter of the rainforest that Brazil has.
The clearing of wetland forests is most likely the work of "agro-industrial land developers," rather than small landholders, suggesting a link to large palm-oil and paper companies, according to the study.
In addition to storing global-warming gases, Indonesia's forests are key areas of biodiversity. These forests are estimated to contain 10% of the world's plants, 12% of the world's mammals and 17% of the world's bird species, the study said.
One particularly significant finding is that the primary-forest loss inside of government-managed lands was 2.2 times higher than outside-managed lands. Although this was mainly the case in managed forests where some logging is permitted, 16% of forest loss occurred in areas where logging and land clearing is officially banned.
"Although Indonesia recently implemented an implicit deforestation moratorium," the study said, "It seems that the moratorium has not had its intended effect."
The researchers have published their dataset online for the public to use and verify, and for the Indonesian government to use in determining how to reduce deforestation rates.
Hansen said the responsibility for addressing this issue does not rest solely with Indonesia, since Americans and many other consumers are buying products containing palm oil and other materials harvested from Indonesian rainforests.
“We are the supply side of that chain of products," he said. “We certainly don’t pay much attention to the things we’re consuming, where they’re sourced.”
Belinda Arunarwati Margono, the study's lead author who works for the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry, told Mashable that she hopes the data helps the government reduce deforestation, but that it's unclear how it will respond. “I am curious how the government will react regarding my results,” she said.
Margono said she plans to continuously update the data to get reliable forest-loss that extend beyond 2012.
Tags: CLIMATE, DEFORESTATION, INDONESIA, RAINFOREST, US & World, WORLD