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Malaysia has the world’s highest deforestation rate, reveals Google forest map

Chart: the world's highest deforestation rate

Malaysia had the world’s highest rate of forest loss between 2000 and 2012, according to a new global forest map developed in partnership with Google.

Malaysia’s total forest loss during the period amounted to 14.4 percent of its year 2000 forest cover. The loss translates to 47,278 square kilometers (18,244 square miles), an area larger than Denmark.

Malaysia’s forest loss was partly offset by a 25,978 sq km gain in vegetation cover resulting from natural recovery, reforestation, and establishment of industrial timber and oil palm plantations. During the period, Malaysia’s oil palm estate grew by roughly 50 percent or 17,000 sq km.

But tree plantations don’t stack up well to natural forests into terms of biodiversity, carbon storage, or maintenance of ecosystem services, indicating that Malaysia suffered very extensive decline of its natural capital base. Most of Malaysia’s forest loss occurred in its densest forests, those with tree cover exceeding 50 percent, which generally store the most carbon and are richest with wildlife, including endangered orangutans, pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinos, and clouded leopards.

forest loss compared with oil palm expansion in Malaysia
After decades of unsustainable logging, which depleted timber stocks and undermined the viability of traditional forestry management, Malaysia’s forests are increasingly being converted for industrial oil palm plantations. The palm oil industry is a powerful political force in the country.

Summary of land use change in Malaysia (bottom). Left column: land use prior to the establishment of new oil palm plantations (in the lower left corner is the total annual increase in oil palm plantations). Middle column: the fate of land following forest conversion (in the lower left corner is the annual rate of deforestation). Right column: net land use change over each five year period. From Historical CO2 emissions from land use and land cover change from the oil palm Industry in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea

Dan Zarin, program director of the Climate and Land Use Alliance, an association of philanthropic foundations, says trading natural forests for planted forests represents a net loss for the planet.

“You can’t ‘net out’ deforestation by planting trees,” said Zarin, “because newly planted forests are far less valuable for carbon, biodiversity and forest-dependent people than standing native forests.”

Malaysia’s rate of forest loss during the period was nearly 50 percent higher than the next runner up, Paraguay (9.6 percent). Its area of forest loss ranked ninth after Russia, Brazil, the United States, Canada, Indonesia, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Australia. Malaysia’s net forest loss — 21,480 sq km — ranked 12th globally.

The data was released in a breakthrough map developed by a team of researchers from the University of Maryland, Google Inc, NASA, USGS, South Dakota State University, the Woods Hole Research Center, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Foundation. The map, which is detailed in today’s issue of the journal Science, is based on 650,000 images captured by NASA Landsat cameras at 30 meter resolution.

Clarifying Google’s forest map

(11/18/2013) The forest map released last week by a team of remote-sensing experts has produced some confusion — and criticism — over exactly what it shows. The map provides a global assessment of forest cover defined ‘strictly biophysically’, according to Peter Potapov, one of the authors of the paper that describes the dataset underlying the map. It counts areas with trees of 5 meters tall or higher as ‘forests’.

According to the project’s led developer, Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland, the map represents a significant advancement toward understanding ecological changes that accompany changes in forest cover.

“This is the first map of forest change that is globally consistent and locally relevant,” said Hansen. “Losses or gains in forest cover shape many important aspects of an ecosystem including, climate regulation, carbon storage, biodiversity and water supplies, but until now there has not been a way to get detailed, accurate, satellite-based and readily available data on forest cover change from local to global scales.”

Deforestation in Peninsular Malaysia
Forest loss in Peninsular Malaysia. Some of Malaysia’s forest loss included replanting of existing plantations — the current version of the map does not distinguish between natural forest cover and plantations.

Hansen adds the tool could be used to develop and implement policies to reduce deforestation.

“Brazil used Landsat data to document its deforestation trends, then used this information in its policy formulation and implementation,” said Hansen. “Now, with our global mapping of forest changes every nation has access to this kind of information, for their own country and the rest of the world.”

Whether Malaysia decides to use the information for that purpose remains to be seen.

Deforestation in Malaysian Borneo

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Charts: deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, 2000-2010

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