Every year deliberately lit fires rage across Indonesia. They destroy pristine rainforest, endanger orangutans and contribute to climate change. A young carbon trading entrepreneur goes in search of a solution.
Home > Indonesian deforestation
In 2007, Greenpeace announced that Indonesia had ‘won’ the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest rate of deforestation. Across the archipelago, 72% of forest has been lost due to legal and illegal clearing, and agriculture-related arson.
Indonesia’s ‘award’ appears in the 2008 Guinness Book of World Records. According to Greenpeace, the text will read:
"Of the 44 countries which collectively account for 90% of the world's forests, the country which pursues the world's highest annual rate of deforestation is Indonesia with 1.8 million ha (4,447,896 acres) per year between 2000-2005 - a rate of 2 per cent annually or 51 square km (20 square miles) every day."
That’s an area of rainforest about the size of Manhattan being cleared on a daily basis.
Until 1950, Indonesia was still densely forested. In the following half century, 40% of extant forest was cleared, representing a drop from 162 million hectares to 98 million hectares. Throughout the 1980s, Indonesia cleared 1 million ha per year, which accelerated to 1.7 million ha per year by the early ‘90s. The rate is now set at over 1.8 million ha per year. The forests most at risk are the low-lying tropical rainforests and peat swamps, which are the most biodiverse and richest in resources.
During the primary period of deforestation (1950 - 2000), a strikingly high number of logging concessions were granted by President Suharto throughout his three-decade term (1967 - 1998). Many of the concessions were offered to individuals personally associated with the Suharto family.
Under his ‘New Order’ administration, Suharto maintained stability throughout a large and multiethnic nation (using an aggressive military-dominated approach), improved education, health, and welfare, and fostered significant industrialization and economic growth. However, the New Order’s ugly reputation for widespread corruption and authoritarianism caught up with it by 1998; when combined with the results of the Asian financial crisis, Suharto’s unpopularity was such that he was forced to resign. According to Transparency International, Suharto misappropriated more money than any other world leader in history with an estimated US $15–35 billion embezzlement during his administration. Following his presidency, attempts were made to charge Suharto with corruption and genocide, but these efforts came to an end with his death in January 2008.
The logging concessions granted by President Suharto represented more than half the country’s forest area. Numerous accounts exist of nepotism, collusion and cronyism relating to forest concessions, particularly throughout the 1970s. Huge land grants were made available to Suharto’s family members and to favoured companies in the logging, pulp and paper mill sectors. Their sole priority was personal financial gain, with forests regarded as a source of revenue to be exploited. No thought was given to long-term sustainability.
Now, nearly half of Indonesia’s remaining forests are fragmented by roads and development. Global Forest Watch [http://www.globalforestwatch.org] observes that “Massive expansion in the plywood, pulp, and paper production sectors over the past two decades means that demand for wood fibre now exceeds legal supplies by 35-40 million cubic meters per year”, creating a level of demand that is impossible to meet under sustainable forest management conditions.
The gap between supply and demand for timber products has germinated a flourishing illegal logging trade. Wood processing industries have openly acknowledged their dependence on illegal timber, which comprised approximately 65% of total supply in 2000. By definition, illegal logging can not be accurately measured, but a former senior official from Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry recently speculated that illegal logging has ruined over 10 million ha of forest.
The impact of clearing by small scale farmers is difficult to calculate, but plausible estimates from the ‘90s suggested that shifting cultivators could be responsible for the loss of 4 million ha between 1985 and 1997 – about 20% of forest loss.
The impact of industrial plantations is far greater, particularly since many of them have turned to fire as an expedient means of forest clearing. In the burning seasons during the El Niño periods of 1994 and 1997-8, deliberately lit fires devastated 5 million ha of forest each time.
As well as plywood, pulp and paper, natural forest has been cleared for industrial timber plantations, cash crop plantations (rubber, palm oil, etc) and transmigration-related development. In many cases the land was cleared in contradiction of legal requirements that such developments only occur only on degraded land or land previously established for conversion under the proper protocols.
Since President Suharto’s downfall in 1998 and the subsequently freer political atmosphere, environmental activists have been forthright in their demands for transparency and accountability from the government and corporate sectors. They have been moderately successful, but the worst excesses of private industry are still going unchecked.
Particularly after the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC / “Kyoto Protocol”) was held in Bali in December 2007, the Indonesian government is under local and international pressure to reform its environmental policy. However, reforms are slow, and not all of them are going to be good for forests.
Decentralisation of power – i.e. the implementation of regional self-government, which takes some of the autonomy back from Jakarta – has been of benefit to the forest in provinces like Aceh, Papua and West Papua. These traditionally separatist areas are taking control of their forest resources and attempting to find innovative ways to preserve and manage them sustainably. However, lack of capital to manage long-term programs is an issue; and overseas investment is being sought.