Indonesia’s push to become the world’s largest supplier of palm oil and a major pulp and paper exporter has taken a heavy toll on the rainforests and peatlands of Sumatra, reveals a new assessment of the island’s forest cover by WWF.
The assessment, based on analysis of satellite imagery, shows Sumatra has lost nearly half of its natural forest cover since 1985. The island’s forests were cleared and converted at a rate of 542,000 hectares, or 2.1 percent, per year. More than 80 percent of forest loss occurred in lowland areas, where the most biodiverse and carbon-dense ecosystems are found.
Forest loss was most extensive in Riau, which lost 63 percent or 4.4 million hectares of its 6.9 million hectares of forest cover between 1985 and 2009, followed by South Sumatra, which lost 2.4 million hectares or 69 percent of its 1985 forest cover; Jambi (1.7 million hectares – 53 percent of its 1985 forest cover), and North Sumatra (1.4 million hectares – 43 percent of its 1985 forest cover). Deforestation accelerated in Riau, Aceh, North Sumatra and West Sumatra during the 2000s, relative to the 1990s. Riau accounted for nearly half of Sumatra’s total forest loss between 2000 and 2009.
According to the report, industrial oil palm and wood-pulp plantations are major drivers of deforestation in Sumatra. WWF cites continued expansion of pulp and paper plantations under the massive “Mega Pulp Project” as “the top threat” to the island’s remaining forests. The group says the project is more destructive than the notorious Mega Rice Project, which laid waste to over 900,000 hectares of peatlands in Central Kalimantan during the 1990s, yet failed to produce rice.
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“Already totaling more than 2.2 million ha today, built on much deeper peat, and continuously expanding, Sumatra’s ‘Mega Pulp Project’ is a climate disaster far worse than the ex Mega Rice Project,” states the report.
“Sumatra’s ‘Mega Pulp Project’ includes close to two million hectares of >0.5m deep peat, of which at least 850,000 ha are 4 to 8 m deep and an additional 330,000 ha are 2 to 4 m deep (Table 6, Map 9). 65% (1.5 million ha) of the total area have already been deforested for development of severely draining pulpwood plantations. The remaining 35% (0.8 million ha) were still covered by natural forest in 2008/9 but could be converted any time.”
WWF notes that all pulp wood concessions in Riau, which accounts for 70 percent of the area converted for the Mega Pulp, supply the mills of the Sinar Mas Group’s Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and APRIL. Both paper products brands have been criticized by environmental groups for deforestation, but APP is currently under intense pressure for its supplier’s plan to convert large blocks of natural forests in the Bukit Tigapuluh landscape, an area of forest that supports endangered Sumatran elephants and tigers, and serves as a reintroduction site for Sumatran orangutans. In recent corporate social responsibility reports, APP has tried to downplay the concerns by focusing on the status of Bukit Tigapuluh National Park, an area of protected forest near the concession areas. APP maintains its suppliers operate within the law and do not clear forests within the national park.
In a written response to mongabay.com, APP said it needed more time to analyze the new report’s findings, but that it “strongly supports the use of forest land for conservation, community use and development of indigenous species.”
Yumiko Uryu et al. Sumatra’s Forests, their Wildlife and the Climate Windows in Time: 1985, 1990, 2000 and 2009. WWF-Indonesia. Jakarta, Indonesia, July 2010
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