Sumatra's burning forests take climate toll

Posted: 28 February 2008

As the haze from burning forests in Indonesia once again envelopes parts of Malaysia, a new study shows that turning the forests and peat swamps of just one Sumatran province into pulpwood and palm oil plantations is generating more annual greenhouse gas emissions than the Netherlands and is rapidly driving the province's elephants into extinction.

The study,by WWF and partners,found that in central Sumatra's Riau Province 4.2 million hectares of tropical forests and peat swamp have been cleared in the last 25 years. Forest loss, degradation and, decomposition and fires are, on average, equivalent to 122 per cent of the Netherlands total annual emissions, 58 per cent of Australia's annual emissions, 39 per cent of annual UK emissions and 26 per cent of annual German emissions.

Illegal logging
Illegal logging
Illegal logging for paper industry and forest clearing for Palm oil plantation. TESSO NILO Plantation Riau, Sumatra. Credit: © WWF-Canon / Alain COMPOST
Riau was chosen for the study because it is home to vast peatlands estimated to hold Southeast Asia's largest store of carbon, and contains some of the most critical habitat for Sumatran elephants and tigers. It also has Indonesia's highest deforestation rate, substantially driven by the operations of global paper giants Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited (APRIL).

Tiger toll

The province has lost 65 per cent of its forests over the last 25 years and in recent years has suffered Indonesia's fastest deforestation rates. In the same period there was an 84 per cent decline in elephant populations, down to only 210 individuals, while tiger populations are estimated to have declined by 70 per cent to perhaps just 192 individuals.

"We found that Sumatra's elephants and tigers are disappearing even faster than their forests are in Riau," said WWF International's Species Programme Director, Dr Susan Lieberman. "This is happening because as wildlife search for new habitat and food sources, they increasingly come into conflict with people and are killed.

"The fragmentation and opening up of new forest areas also increases both the access and the opportunities for poaching. Therefore, a concerted effort to save these forests will contribute significantly to slowing the rate of global climate change, and will give tigers, elephants, and local communities a real chance for a future in Sumatra."

Bali promises

Orphan elephant, Sumatra
Orphan elephant, Sumatra
Young orphan Sumatran elephant suffering from skin excoriation. Tesso Nilo, Riau Province, Sumatra. Credit: © WWF / Volker KESS
At last December's Bali Climate Change Conference, the Indonesian minister of Forestry pledged to provide incentives to stop unsustainable forestry practices and protect Indonesia's forests. The governor of Riau Province has also made a public commitment to protect the province's remaining forest.

"If the commitments by the Indonesian government are implemented, it will not only save its endangered species but actually slow the rate ofglobal climate change through the carbon savings," said Ian Kosasih, director of WWF-Indonesia's forest programme.

Carbon emissions are likely to increase, the study predicted, as most future forest clearance will be conducted in areas with deep peat, which releases greenhouse gases when it decomposes or burns.

"If government and local industry were to create positive incentives for projects to reduce emissions by saving forests in Riau Province, itwould both protect the province's massive carbon stores and also contribute to the economies of local communities that are dependent on these forests," said Kosasih.

At the Climate Change Conference in Bali, it was agreed that the negotiations towards the post-2012 climate agreement should consider a mechanism to provide positive incentives for developing countries, such as Indonesia, to reduce emissions from forests. However WWF believes that the world cannot wait until this agreement is in place and that voluntarily financed programmes need more support from governments

WWF's report was co-authored by Remote Sensing Solution GmbH and Hokkaido University. Most of Riau's forests have been cleared since 1982 to make way for new industrial plantations, with approximately 30 per cent cleared for the palm oil plantations and around 20 per cent for pulpwood plantations. To download the report, go here.

Related links:

Illegal logging threatens tigers and tribes in Sumatra

Net forest loss of 20,000 hectares per day

Sumatran tigers are being sold into extinction