New data indicate deforestation in Indonesia is reaching record highs

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

Forest loss in Indonesia is reaching the highest levels since detailed measurements began according to new data published this week by the World Resources Institute, amid weak law enforcement and a failure to address the root causes of the crisis.

Total tree cover loss was recorded as 2.4 million hectares in 2016, up from 1.7m ha in 2015 and exceeding the previous record, set in 2012.

Forest loss within primary forests also hit a new high in 2016, surpassing 900,000 hectares. This was driven in large part by a spike in clearance for plantations in Papua, home to some of the last large tracts of intact forest in the country.

Cleared land in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, with haze from forest fires in the background. Credit: Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment.

The increased loss was partly attributable to fires which ravaged the country in 2015. Cloud cover meant that, while many of the fires occurred in 2015, tree loss wasn’t recorded by satellites until 2016. However, even taking a broader perspective by using a rolling three-year average as WRI recommends, deforestation is reaching highs not previously seen.

Case studies suggest that continued rampant illegality is playing a central role in the ongoing deforestation crisis. Earthsight analysis in November 2015 showed that the Korean firm Korindo was illegally using fire to clear forest on two of its palm oil concessions in Papua. Subsequent analysis found the firm had destroyed 30,000 hectares of forest on the island since 2013. Korindo initially denied the accusations, but later announced a moratorium on land development in its palm oil concessions after losing several of its biggest buyers.

Firespots inside Korindo's PT Tunas Sawaerma oil palm concession on Indonesian Papua.

Elsewhere, drone footage gathered in September 2016 found widespread evidence of the criminal use of fire to clear forest in Riau province on the island of Sumatra. A senior official in Riau has estimated that the province contains a million hectares of illegal oil palm plantations.

Campaigners have also raised concerns over the failure of the Indonesian police to properly investigate the causes of the 2015 fires. In July 2016, police in Riau formally closed the cases against 15 palm oil companies alleged to have started fires in the province. The police said the fires were lit by local communities outside the boundaries of large-scale palm oil concessions. Subsequent field research by the network Jikalahari unearthed extensive evidence contradicting this verdict.

Illegal clearances have continued through 2017. Oil palm firms supplying some of the world’s biggest traders have repeatedly broken a moratorium on clearances in the Leuser Ecosystem

Previously, a 2014 study estimated that 80 percent of the deforestation that took place in Indonesia between 2000 and 2012 was illegal. Recent in-depth investigations by Earthsight have exposed the corrupt political interests that underpin this problem.