Indonesia Tops Brazil in Rainforest Destruction, and It’s All Our Fault

Demand is soaring for palm oil, an ingredient found in half the products sold at the local supermarket.

(Photo: Beawiharta/Reuters)

Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

Indonesia already ranks as one of the world’s top carbon emitters. Now a new study shows the country’s rate of tropical deforestation is the highest on the planet and more than previously reported by the Indonesian government.

What’s more, the amount of deforested area spiked the year after a 2011 government moratorium on logging virgin forests took effect, according to researchers from the University of Maryland and the nonprofit organization World Resources Institute. Their report was published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The researchers tapped NASA satellite data to discover that between 2000 and 2012, Indonesia clear-cut and drained about15 million acres of forest and wetlands—an area equivalent to half the size of England. Nearly 40 percent of the deforestation took place in the most biologically diverse areas of the country.

Driven by global demand for pulp and palm oil, deforestation also destroys the wildlife habitat and the natural resources that indigenous people depend on.

The country imposed a logging moratorium and has made a commitment to reduce its carbon emissions. Still, while the Ministry of Forestry reported the annual loss of an average of 1 million acres to deforestation between 2009 and 2011, the researchers found the actual number was 1.6 million acres.

Indonesia also had lacked sufficient technology to monitor the problem. For instance, it has not had access to satellites as sophisticated as those of Brazil—a country that used satellite monitoring to cut its deforestation rate by 70 percent. Instead, Indonesia maps deforestation every five years and takes two more years to calculate the loss, meaning its data is seriously out-of-date.

The WRI researchers’ data indicates that the moratorium hasn’t worked to slow deforestation. In 2012, a year after the moratorium was implemented, the amount of deforested areas rose from 1.6 million acres to 2.1 million acres.

Why the increase? “The moratorium grandfathered in companies’ permits, so they could still clear forestland,” said Fred Stolle, a WRI program manager and coauthor of the study. “There’s a lot of pressure for companies to expand their pulp and palm oil operations, so companies might have started clearing land because they were afraid that if they let the land go dormant, the government would [revoke] those permits.”

There is hope. The Indonesian government recently started working with WRI to monitor its forests in real time via satellite using the organization’s Global Forest Watch program.

Indonesia could also force companies to use land that’s already degraded for their palm oil and pulp operations instead of forestland and peat wetlands, Stolle said. That’s not happening now, he said, because it’s easier to get a permit to develop forest areas than to negotiate with people already occupying land.

The root of the deforestation problem, though, is demand for palm oil, which has soared, as it’s considered a healthier alternative to butter or hydrogenated oils. According to the World Wildlife Fund, palm oil is found in about half of supermarket products, from shampoo to cookies and ice cream—in other words, the stuff you and I buy. Or decide not to buy. 

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