06/30/2014 12:48 EDT | Updated 08/30/2014 05:59 EDT

The Hefty Price We're All Paying For Deforestation in Indonesia

Indonesia is losing some of the world's most diverse rainforests at a rate far greater than previously thought, a study released on Monday shows, despite the government's deforestation moratorium and pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, shows that loss of primary forests in Indonesia now far exceeds forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon. Total primary forest in Indonesia totalled 840,000 hectares (2.1 million acres) in 2012 compared with 460,000 ha for the Brazilian Amazon. Primary forests are among the world's richest in species and carbon reserves.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Maryland in the United States, analyzed satellite imagery to determine the annual rate of primary forest loss in Indonesia between 2000 and 2012. Most loss occurred in low-land and peat swamp forests areas, with clearance of the latter accelerating during the study period mainly to develop palm oil and pulp plantations.

Highest rates of losses were on the island of Sumatra and in Kalimantan on Borneo, with smaller areas of clearance in Papua, Indonesia's half of New Guinea island. Overall, annual forest loss increased by nearly 50,000 ha between 2000 and 2012.

"We quantified increasing loss of primary forest during the moratorium, meaning the moratorium has not yet slowed clearing and may in fact have accelerated it," lead author Belinda Margono, of the University of Maryland and Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry, told

Indonesia lost 6.02 million ha of primary forests between 2000 and 2012, the researchers found. That's about the size of West Virginia. The study only focused on primary forests and didn't look at losses of more degraded secondary forests or clearance of industrial plantations.

The figures are far higher than the Ministry of Forestry's official estimates for total annual deforestation and challenge the ministry's view that deforestation is declining. It says deforestation fell from 1.1 million ha between 2000 and 2005 to about 400,000 ha between 2009 and 2011.

Indonesia implemented its forest moratorium in 2011 as a key part of the government's $1 billion climate agreement with Norway, which focuses on rewarding Indonesia for efforts to cut deforestation and improve forest protection. The moratorium stopped the issuance of new concession licences in primary forest and peat lands. It was extended for another two years in 2013.

However, the surging rate of primary forest loss during 2012, the moratorium's first full year, shows it doesn't appear to be working. The authors found that 40 percent of the deforestation from 2000-2012 occurred on lands designated for forest protection by the government , showing land use monitoring and law enforcement aren't working effectively enough for the moratorium.

Of the 40 per cent total, 16 per cent occurred within conservation and protection forests that prohibit clearing. This accelerating rate of clearance is everyone's problem.

Primary forests are one of Indonesia's most valuable resources in terms of water storage, climate regulation and livelihoods for millions of local people. The rate of loss is a direct threat the country's future and global efforts to fight climate change.

"The rainforests are the lungs of the planet. You have lungs to breathe and if you get rid of the lungs, the planet's going to suffer," Matthew Hansen, a co-author of the report at the University of Maryland, told Reuters.

Deep-peat lands that can store as much as 10 times more carbon underground than above ground. You clear them at your peril.

Once drained, peat can burn for weeks, creating a choking haze that blankets large areas in smoke. Indonesia is now entering the dry season and with the threat of a drought-causing El Nino looming, large-scale forest clearance only exacerbates the threat of forest fires. In other words, failure to stem the growing rate of forest loss is setting Indonesia up for ever-greater forest fire crises -- inevitably an increasing challenge for the country's new president once he takes office later this year.

It also means Indonesia will become an increasing source of carbon pollution, not less. It is already one of the world's top producers of CO2, mainly through deforestation and fires. The government has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by at least 26 per cent by 2020 from business-as-usual levels.

To further underscore the risks: Indonesia's forests contain 10 per cent of the world's plants, 12 per cent of the world's mammals, 16 per cent of the world's reptile-amphibians, and 17 per cent of the world's bird species. Massive clearance of forests, particularly primary forests, leads to extinctions, floods, reduced river flows, as well as huge fires.

The results of the study are a timely reminder of the threat facing Indonesia's forests and the immense benefits they bring to the economy and to millions of Indonesians. It is also a reminder for the next president to act quickly in creating more effective and open land use planning that balances the needs of a growing economy with the needs of future generations.

The current course of business-as-usual might lead to short-term gains for a small number of companies and a brief boost in income for the government. But degraded landscapes benefit no one and impoverish future generations to come. You only miss something when it's gone. And in the case of Indonesia's primary forests, their loss will cost the nation, and the planet, dearly.


Photo galleryNASA Deforestation Pics See Gallery