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Deforestation in Indonesia

Riazul Islam
July 14, 2014

Fast economic expansion coupled with political apathy has led to rapid deforestation in Indonesia, threatening biodiversity. Activists say the government should not place GDP growth over environmental protection.

Indonesien Borneo Regenwald Abholzung Rodung
Image: Imago

Over the past decade, Indonesia has been experiencing strong economic growth, which has lifted millions of people out of poverty. However, the country's growth story has a negative side: rapid deforestation. High demand - both local and foreign - for forest products such as palm oil, pulp and paper is driving deforestation, according to the Indonesian research organization Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

A recent study by University of Maryland researchers concluded that Indonesia has the highest rate of deforestation in the world. Between 2000 and 2012, the country lost almost 16 million hectares of forest, an area the size of Greece. Forest land is being increasingly converted into either industrial zones or agricultural fields. Furthermore, illegal logging, mining and land fires have concerned environmentalists as they pose a threat to biodiversity and increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Indonesien Jambi Regenwald Abholzung Palmöl Plantagen
Lack of political interest in the protection of nature has led to growing rate of deforestation in IndonesiaImage: Imago

A lack of political interest in the protection of nature and poor governance are responsible for the growing rate of deforestation in Indonesia, said Bruno Vander Velde, senior writer at CIFOR.

Lack of political will

In an attempt to curb deforestation, the Indonesian government declared a moratorium in December 2011, which prohibited the approval of any licenses to convert primary forests and peatlands for agriculture or any other use. But the measure has so far failed to slow down the loss of forest area.

Environmentalists blame the failure on a lack of coordination between central and provincial governments, weak monitoring and widespread irregularities in local administration. Moreover, they add that the politicians' indifference towards the issue of climate change is exacerbating the problem.

Abetnego Tarigan, executive director of Jakarta-based environmental organization Friends of the Earth Indonesia's (WALHI), told DW that there has hardly been any discussion on environmental issues in the country's parliament.

"Economic growth and maximizing revenues by destroying natural resources is the only priority for the political class. Many lawmakers have business interests and they only have their profits in mind," Tarigan added.

Indonesia is rich in natural resources, but political parties pay little heed to protect them. For instance, during the campaign for the recently held presidential election, none of the candidates "showed strong commitment to protect the environment," Bustar Maitar, global head of Greenpeace's Indonesia forest campaign, told DW, adding that this lack of political will has become a big challenge for the protection of forests.

Weak monitoring

The latest data showed that while 38 percent of all tree cover loss in Indonesia occurred in the protected primary forests, the overall forest loss was increasing by an average of 47,600 hectares each year.

Environmentalist Tarigan said that there was evidence of illegal logging and deforestation in the restricted forest area. "Local authorities have too little capacity to monitor such a vast forest area and in many areas dishonest businessmen are taking advantage of it," he explained.

Moreover, one of the reasons for the failure to curb the forest loss is that a large amount of deforestation has been taking place outside the restricted primary forest area, say experts. "That is why the moratorium should be expanded to natural forests so that forest conversion can be monitored and reduced, stressed Greenpeace activist Bustar Maitar.

Threat to biodiversity

According to United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), total forest vegetation in Indonesia produces more than 14 billion tons of biomass, equivalent to approximately 20 percent of the biomass in all of Africa's tropical forests.

Nashorn Aceh Sumatra Indonesien
Sumatran and Javan rhinos have been categorized as critically endangeredImage: Leuser International Foundation

Indonesia covers only 1.3 percent of the world's landmass, but it is home to 11 percent of the world's plant species, 10 percent of mammal species and 16 percent of bird species. But continuous deforestation, illegal hunting and trading are having a negative impact on biodiversity in the country.

According to CIFOR, elephant population fell by 35 percent between 1992 and 2007 due to continuous deforestation. While the number of Sumatran tigers has decreased to some 400 to 500, Sumatran and Javan rhinos have already been categorized as critically endangered.