Cause of haze? Up to 87% of recent deforestation in fire zone due to palm oil, timber

/ Rhett A. Butler

New analysis of land cover in Riau Province reveals the outsized role industrial plantations play in driving deforestation and associated haze. The analysis, conducted by Eyes on the Forest, finds that up to 56% of deforestation in Riau between 2007 and 2012 can be linked to timber plantations for pulp and paper production. The figure for oil palm plantations may be as high as 31%.

New analysis of forest cover in Riau Province reveals the outsized role industrial plantations play in driving deforestation and associated haze.

The analysis, conducted by Eyes on the Forest, a coalition of Sumatran environmental groups, finds that up to 56 percent of deforestation in Riau between 2007 and 2012 can be linked to timber plantations for pulp and paper production. The figure for oil palm plantations may be as high as 31 percent.

Eyes on the Forest also found widespread overlap between cleared areas and 8,055 hotspots detected this month by NASA satellites, including 2,432 hotspots (30 percent) within pulpwood concessions owned by Sinar Mas Group / Asia Pulp & Paper and Royal Golden Eagle / APRIL and 696 (9 percent) in large, well-managed oil palm plantations. 29 percent of hotspots occurred in areas of exposed soil, while 20 percent show up in areas that were natural forest as recently as 2012. 88 percent of all hotspots are in peatland areas, according to the analysis.

fate of forest lands deforested between 2007 and 2012 in Riau province in Sumatra
Fate of deforested lands in Riau, 2007-2012

Eyes on the Forest notes that 449 hotspots were detected in logging concessions in the Tesso Nilo forest complex, which the group says has “serious encroachment issues” including illegal oil palm plantations. Yesterday Eyes on the Forest released a report documenting sales of palm oil produced illegally within the complex’s boundaries to Asian Agri and Wilmar, two of the world’s largest palm oil companies.

The new findings are presented as data layers on Eyes on the Forest’s interactive Google Earth platform. The maps provide a detailed analysis of forest loss between 1990 and 2012, including the conversion of some 3.9 million hectares of natural forests in Riau. Only 2 million hectares of forest remain in the province.

Screenshot from Eyes on the Forest’s mapping platform showing NASA fire data overlaid on peat areas. Drained peatlands are especially vulnerable to fire and generate large amounts of emissions when burned.

Screenshot from the Google Earth plantation layer on Eyes on the Forest’s mapping platform.

Haze from the fires has been affecting the region since mid-June. Singapore and Malaysia have closed schools and warned residents to stay indoors due to hazardous levels of air pollution. Last Friday, Singapore’s air pollution index hit the highest level ever recorded.

While the fires in Sumatra are the worst since 2006, they have become an annual event since the 1990s when the rate of deforestation in Sumatra accelerated. Overall Sumatra lost 7.5 million hectares of forest — 36 percent of its cover — between 1990 and 2010. Plantation development has been the biggest driver of deforestation over that period.

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.

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