Driving from Medan, Indonesia’s third-largest city, to Lake Toba, the world’s largest volcanic lake in the central highlands of Sumatra, the extent of the country’s deforestation becomes numbingly clear. For hours, a visitor passes plantation after plantation — here palm oil, there paper pulp — all the way to a small, protected forest ring around the lake.
Global demand for forest commodities has devastated major portions of the world’s third-largest tropical forest, with Indonesia losing more than 100,000 square miles of woodlands and peatlands — an area larger than the United Kingdom — from 1990 to 2015, dealing a huge blow to one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The island of Sumatra alone lost 29,000 square miles — about one-third of its forests — from 1990 to 2010.
Seven years ago, this relentless toll led Indonesia to declare a moratorium on logging new concessions in undisturbed tropical forests and peatlands — a move seen as critical in stemming forest loss and the accompanying fires, haze, and greenhouse gas emissions. That it came shortly after a $1 billion dollar pledge from the government of Norway as part of the then-nascent Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program, led many to hope that this was an important step toward reversing decades of deforestation in Indonesia. Adding to the momentum were zero-deforestation pledges from companies like Asia Pulp & Paper and the Consumer Goods Forum, which includes major palm oil buyers such as Mars, PepsiCo, and Proctor & Gamble.
At least 10,000 square miles of primary forest and peatlands — the equivalent of five islands the size of Bali — have disappeared since the moratorium.
Nearly seven years after the declaration of the moratorium, however, the initiative has failed to stem the loss of forests and peatlands across the Indonesian archipelago. Satellite monitoring shows that palm oil and paper plantations continue to expand, with at least 10,000 square miles of primary forest and peatland — the equivalent of five islands the size of Bali — disappearing since the moratorium went into effect, according to one analysis. In 2015, a massive El Niño-fueled fire event — linked to burning for land-clearing — was believed to be the worst in Indonesian history, emitting an estimated 1,750 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere — nearly twice what Germany does in a year, according to The Global Fire Emissions Database.
Following the moratorium, says Asep Komarudin, Forest Campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, “there were no significant improvements in Indonesia’s natural resource governance, particularly in the forestry sector.”
Indeed, several years ago, Indonesia became the world leader in deforestation, overtaking Brazil. Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist who founded the Borneo Futures initiative, says he has seen little change in Indonesian Borneo, where palm oil plantations continue to expand.
“If fact, there was a marked increase of deforestation after 2010… you get a very rapid expansion of the oil palm industry into forest areas, so if a moratorium was called in 2011, it didn’t seem to have an impact on the oil palm sector at least,” said Meijaard. Data from Global Forest Watch shows a similar pattern – little change in deforestation rates across the country since the moratorium went into effect.
The reasons for this are manifold. First, there is the weakness of the moratorium itself, which was only a so-called Presidential Instruction, not a legally binding statute, meaning it lacked strong enforcement mechanisms. Moreover, the moratorium only applied to new concessions, not existing concessions that had already been ceded to companies and smallholders, but had not yet been cut down or burned. Adding to the moratorium’s ineffectiveness are ongoing problems with corruption, and the drive — particularly after the election of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to the presidency in 2014 — to rapidly expand the economy. Moreover, government weakness and inefficiency also have meant that Norway’s pledged funds have scarcely been used to protect forests.
Moreover, the zero-deforestation pledges made by corporations have not yet had a major impact. A study published earlier this year in Nature Climate Change analyzed pledges from 450 companies and found that the majority were insufficient in their scope to meaningfully reduce deforestation on their own. The report’s authors argued that companies also need to push governments at all levels to crack down on deforestation globally.
Some experts say that while Indonesia’s progress is disappointing, fixing decades of forestry mismanagement in a few years was always an impossible task. They also note that deforestation rates have come down from their peak in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“The very important steps in the right direction that Indonesia has taken are unfairly characterized as failures because the whole big ship has not turned around yet,” said Jonah Busch, an environmental economist and a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development. “If there hadn’t been a moratorium, deforestation might have been even higher.”
A recent study found that nearly 150,000 orangutans had been lost in Borneo from 1999 to 2015, chiefly due to habitat loss.
The problem, conservationists say, is that the necessary changes are not happening fast enough to protect Indonesia’s landscapes and biodiversity. The country has 350,000 square miles of tropical forests, the third-largest area in the world after Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to ProFauna, an Indonesian wildlife protection nonprofit, Indonesia is first in the world in endemic birds and mammals. A country with just 1.3 percent of the world’s land has 17 percent of its wildlife species.
A study published in February in Current Biology found that nearly 150,000 orangutans had been lost in Borneo from 1999 to 2015, chiefly due to habitat loss. The Sumatran rhino, the smallest of all living rhinoceroses and the only Asian rhino with two horns, is critically endangered; Save The Rhino, a wildlife conservation group, estimates that fewer than 100 of the animals remain in the wild. They now are found only in a few slivers of Sumatra’s remaining rainforests, the largest of which, the Leuser Ecosystem, is facing a major threat from agribusiness.
While the loss of tropical landscapes is devastating on its own, the destruction is amplified when you factor in the key tool used by companies, smallholders, and villagers to clear land: fire. Large-scale fires and haze events began only after the timber boom of the 1970’s, and were exacerbated by expansion of palm oil and pulpwood plantations. Fires now occur nearly yearly and are why Indonesia is regularly one of the top five countries in the world for greenhouse gas emissions.
This is because much of Sumatra and Kalimantan, the two islands where the bulk of deforestation has taken place, are composed primarily of peatlands. Peatland soils can contain several times more carbon than the trees themselves, and evidence is growing that current global stocks of carbon in peat are massively underestimated. Peatlands are naturally wet and swampy, but palm, acacia, and eucalyptus all require dry land to grow, so plantation owners drain the land, creating a tinderbox for fires.
Worldwide, emissions related to forest and land disturbance are responsible for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to data from the World Bank. Indonesia is the largest global contributor to these emissions, spewing 240 to 447 million tons of CO2 annually from land disturbance alone, according to data from Global Forest Watch. Gaining control over these emissions by reducing deforestation would make an important contribution to helping meet global CO2 emissions-reduction targets, scientists say.
“There are a lot of potential emissions reductions from conserving forests in Indonesia,” said Busch, “and there are a lot of reasons to think that those are relatively cheap ways to reduce emissions relative to industrial reductions. The world has good reasons to take advantage of this low-cost climate solution… but it has not been happening to the extent it should be.”
A core problem is a lack of incentives for developing countries to protect forests, especially when faced with the need to expand their economies.
Such imperatives drove Norway’s pledge to Indonesia. According to the Norwegian Ministry of Environment and Climate, only 12 percent of the $1 billion that Norway pledged has been disbursed so far, and that portion has been designated specifically for helping the Indonesian government properly monitor, evaluate, and disseminate payments for reducing deforestation. Some of the money already disbursed has been used to improve firefighting and resolve social conflicts between communities and companies in forest areas, Ola Elvestuen, Minister of Climate and Environment for Norway, told Yale Environment 360.
One of the core problems is a lack of incentives for developing countries to protect forests, especially when faced with the need to expand their economies. While Norway’s $1 billion pledge sounds like a lot of money, it pales compared to the size of the industries responsible for deforestation. In 2015, Indonesia’s pulp exports were $1.8 billion and palm oil $15 billion; coal exports in 2016 were $12.9 billion.
Norway’s pledge was meant to be just the start, with other countries following suit. But additional climate financing has not been forthcoming. While developed countries agreed to put $100 billion into the Green Climate Fund as part of the Paris Agreement to fight climate change, only about $10 billion has been committed. Factor in lower revenues from carbon credit money linked to cap-and-trade programs in places like Europe and Canada, and you have a major funding gap in investments in programs like REDD+.
“The amount of money that’s on the table for conserving forests is not nearly enough to compete with the amount of money that is changing hands every day for clearing forests for palm oil and paper pulp,” said Busch.
Still, there are some signs of hope. The Norwegian government is optimistic that direct payments for emissions reductions can begin soon, meaning that Indonesia can tap into more than $800 million to protect and restore forests.
“Any change in how land and forests are used take time, especially in such a large and diverse country as Indonesia,” said Elvestuen. “We are appreciating that Indonesia is making important governance reforms in the forest and land use sectors and we are looking forward to quickly seeing results in terms of reduced deforestation and forest degradation.”
According to Shintia Arwida, a scientist at the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, the government has finally established a unit that will serve as the primary funding mechanism, a key step toward receiving and dispersing REDD+ payments. So far, however, forest conservation in Indonesia has taken a back seat to economic development, which depends on expanding the very industries responsible for deforestation and fires. A case in point: Plans are going forward to build 3 million acres of sugar and oil palm plantations in Indonesian Papua, one of the few regions of the country that has yet to see massive deforestation.
Stemming deforestation in Indonesia is hardly the responsibility of Indonesia alone, said Busch, as companies with zero-deforestation pledges and countries vowing to support REDD+ programs must intensify their efforts. “Indonesia is too big to fail when it comes to climate,” he said.
Yet as is often the case in Indonesia, defining progress is not easy. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Forestry released what seemed to be good news for the country’s remaining forests. According to their data, deforestation had decreased in the past two years. However, dig deeper into the data and a different reality emerges: Pulpwood plantations were counted as “forests.” Only by defining deforestation as forests could Indonesia show it was making progress.