Rainforests decline sharply in Sumatra, but rate of deforestation slows

Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
August 28, 2012

Chart: Forest cover in Sumatra, 1990-2010.
Forest cover in Sumatra, 1990-2010.

The extent of old-growth forest in Sumatra shrank by 40 percent over the past 20 years, while overall forest on the Indonesian island declined by 36 percent, finds a comprehensive new satellite-based assessment published in Environmental Research Letters.

The research, conducted by an international team led by Belinda Arunarwati Margono of South Dakota State University and Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry, reveals the dire condition of Sumatra's once extensive rainforests. Overall Sumatra lost 7.5 million hectares of forest between 1990 and 2010, of which about 2.6 million hectares was primary forest. The bulk of forest loss occurred in secondary forests that had been previously degraded by logging. Only 8 percent of Sumatra retains virgin forest.

Chart: Deforestation by province in Sumatra, 1990-2010.
Deforestation by province in Sumatra, 1990-2010. NOTE: The authors use “primary degraded forest” to refer to natural forest that has been disturbed, mostly by logging activities. It is quite similar with what is usually termed "degraded forest". However, in Indonesia, the term of “degraded forests” is sometimes used in place of “secondary forests”, which are forests in a state of regrowth after clearing.

Chart: Forest cover by province in Sumatra, 1990-2010.

Chart: Forest cover by province in Sumatra, 1990-2010.
Primary forest and total forest cover by province in Sumatra: Aceh, North Sumatra, West Sumatra, Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, Bengkulu, and Lampung.

However not all the news was bad for Sumatra's forests. The data showed a 61 percent decline in the annual rate of clearing between the 1990s and the 2000s, falling from 542,000 to 211,000 hectares per year. The area of forest degraded by logging also plunged from 192,000 ha per year to 40,000. Primary forest loss between 2000 and 2010 fell to 42,000 hectares annually, down from 218,000 the decade earlier.

Some of the slowing was likely due to depletion of Sumatra's timber stocks as well was the restoration of governance following the anarchy in the aftermath of General Suharto's downfall in 1997-1998, when vast areas of forest were cleared. However, the data also suggests that conservation areas may be contributing to the slow-down. Forests zoned for conservation and protection forests lost only 1.3 and 4 percent of their cover respectively between 2000 and 2010. By comparison, areas zoned for logging and conversion to industrial plantations lost between 19 and 39 percent during the period. (A study published earlier this year disagrees).

Chart: Primary forest zoned for different use by province in Sumatra, 1990-2010.
Primary forest zoned for different use by province in Sumatra, 1990-2010. Chart shows area zoned as protection forests (HL), conservation forests (HK), regular production forests (HP), limited production forests (HPT), convertible production forests (HPK), and outside forest land use zone (APL)

Riau Province had the highest rate of forest loss in Sumatra. It accounted for 42 percent of deforestation on the island between 1990 and 2010.

The study also assessed drivers of deforestation and degradation. It noted that in the 1950s through the 1960s agricultural expansion for rice cultivation and smallholder clearance for rubber and coffee were the main drivers of forest loss. In the 1970s through the late 1990s, large-scale commercial logging operations and forest plantations were the dominant factors, with the state-sponsored transmigration program and the 1982-1983 fires playing secondary roles. After 1990, oil palm plantations and pulp and paper plantations became the biggest causes of deforestation. Illegal logging drove forest degradation.

Sumatra is the only place on earth where elephants, rhinos, tigers, and orangutans are naturally found together. However all four species are imperiled by deforestation.

Chart: Share of forest deforestation by province in Sumatra, 2000-2010.
Share of forest deforestation by province in Sumatra, 2000-2010

Map of forest cover in Sumatra, 2010.
Map of forest cover in Sumatra, 2010. Courtesy of Belinda Arunarwati Margono et al 2012.

CITATION: Belinda Arunarwati Margono, Svetlana Turubanova, Ilona Zhuravleva, Peter Potapov, Alexandra Tyukavina, Alessandro Baccini, Scott Goetz and Matthew C Hansen. Mapping and monitoring deforestation and forest degradation in Sumatra (Indonesia) using Landsat time series data sets from 1990 to 2010. Environ. Res. Lett. 7 034010 doi:10.1088/1748-9326/7/3/034010 Published 19 July 2012>

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Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com (August 28, 2012).

Rainforests decline sharply in Sumatra, but rate of deforestation slows.