World Rainforest Movement

Indonesia: Destruction of forests by pulpwood and oil palm plantations drives climate change

A recent study published by WWF (1) analyzes deforestation and forest degradation in Riau Province between 1982 and 2007 and identifies their main drivers: pulpwood and oil palm industrial plantations.

The study shows that the fastest rate of deforestation in Indonesia is occurring in central Sumatra’s Riau province, which used to have 78% of its land covered by forest. In the past 25 years, some 4.2m hectares (65%) of its tropical forests and peat swamps have been cleared for industrial plantations.

About 30% of Riau’s forest has been cleared to establish oil palm plantations. The recent rise of palm oil demand to feed the increasing global market of agrofuels is fuelling much of the forest clearance.

Industrial pulpwood plantations also entered the scene. According to the study: “In the 1980s began the forest conversion boom that covered Riau with more oil palm concessions than any other province in Indonesia. Over the last decade the palm oil industry saw the rise of a serious competitor in Riau: the pulp and paper industry”. The pressure on Indonesia’s and Riau’s forests is going to increase as plans to establish tree plantations accelerate.

As the report says, the “speed and finality” of forest conversion to feed the ever expanding pulp and paper and palm oil industries is matched “by no other type of deforestation”.

Still, the problem of deforestation in Riau is not only about biodiversity loss. Greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation, forest degradation and peat decomposition and burning in Indonesia have generated increased attention.

Both forests and peat soils are important long-term or even permanent, stores of carbon on Earth. According to the study, “Riau is home to vast peatlands that are estimated to hold south-east Asia’s largest store of carbon, and contains some of the most biodiverse ecosystems”. Soil loss from deforestation has resulted in globally significant CO2 emissions and the much-reported trans-boundary haze across the Malacca Straits.

“After 2000, forest conversion began focusing on Riau’s peatlands. Long, deep canals dissect all of Riau’s peat bogs, draining the soil with canals sometimes more than a meter deep until the loggers, legal and illegal, can go in to cut the trees and float out the logs. The peat subsides and the dried-out soil becomes Riau’s number one source of fires. The fires blanket central Sumatra and neighboring Singapore and Malaysia with haze for weeks without end in many years and accelerate the release of untold tons of CO2.”

Peat fires as well as forest destruction deprive people from their livelihoods and have increased poverty, which is now up to four times more severe in Indonesian peatlands than in the country’s other lowland areas. The fires have also led to increased illnesses, with “about 30% of all young children in peatlands in Indonesia having respiratory diseases and growth inhibition as a result of peat smoke”.

These findings add to the many others that urge a drastic change in public policies in order to halt the present model of production, trade and consumption which carelessly destroy forests and other sources of life, irresponsibly change our climate and is criminally leading us towards extinction.

(1) “Deforestation, Forest Degradation, Biodiversity Loss and CO2 Emissions in Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia”, 2008, by WWF, Remote Sensing Solutions and Hokkaido university,