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Real-time plantation map aims to throttle deforestation in Papua

  • The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) plans to roll out an interactive map showing the spread of plantations and roads in Indonesia’s Papua region.
  • The region is home to some of the last expanses of pristine tropical forest left in the world, but now faces an influx of plantation companies that have already deforested much of Sumatra and Borneo.
  • The Papua Atlas is designed to monitor the spread of plantations and road networks in the region, and builds on CIFOR’s earlier Borneo Atlas.
  • Crucially this time, the developers are pitching the Papua Atlas to local officials to help inform their policymaking and planning for the region to minimize adverse impacts on the environment and indigenous communities.

JAKARTA — The developers of a new interactive map hope to shine a light on deforestation in Indonesia’s easternmost region of Papua, where industrial-scale agriculture threatens one of the world’s last great expanses of untouched tropical forest.

The Papua Atlas is developed by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), with financial assistance from Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) and is scheduled for publication in 2019.

While other platforms are already available that can track deforestation, including Global Forest Watch, the Papua Atlas is set to differentiate itself by tracking the actual progression of plantation areas and road developments.

As a result, users will be able to see the number and extent of oil palm or pulpwood concessions or roads cut through the forest over time, says David Gaveau, a research associate with CIFOR who’s developing the map with his colleague Mohammad Agus Salim.

Combined with a function to search for concessions in various ways, such as by looking at the identity of a parent company of a concession holder, this makes the Papua Atlas a powerful tool to increase transparency in the plantation sector, Gaveau says.

“The Atlas links this land use and land cover change map that we derive based on satellite imagery with [a] land ownership map,” Gaveau tells Mongabay. “So one is able to query, not only at individual concessions, but also big groups [behind them].”

Gaveua says the map was conceived to address the current lack of information on how concessions are being farmed out in Papua, a region that encompasses the western half of the island of New Guinea and comprises the two provinces of Papua and West Papua.

“The main idea is to be more transparent about what’s been going on, and link deforestation with ownership to understand who’s responsible,” he says. “To increase corporate accountability, we need to understand how much deforestation has happened, and to what extent plantation areas and road developments have caused deforestation.”

Map of Indonesia’s easternmost Papua region, which encompasses the western half of the island of New Guinea.

Prime land

The Papua region accounts for 35 percent of Indonesia’s remaining rainforest, spanning 294,000 square kilometers (113,500 square miles) — an area the size of the state of Arizona. Its remoteness — the largest city in the region, Jayapura, is more than five hours by plane from the capital, Jakarta — and dearth of infrastructure such as roads, electricity, telecommunications and piped water, have long rendered the region the least developed and most impoverished in Indonesia. On the flipside, though, it has meant the rich forests of Papua, home to exotic birds of paradise and myriad other animal and plant species, have stayed largely out of reach of the mining and plantation outfits that have ravaged the forests of Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo.

But that’s changed in recent years, thanks to a renewed government focus on boosting development in the region. Palm oil companies have begun moving in, quickly mowing down vast swaths of some of Indonesia’s last pristine forests.

“As prime land becomes scarce on other islands, companies are turning their eyes to Papua,” Gaveau says.

A study he did using data from the University of Maryland showed the Papua region had lost 6,000 square kilometers (2,300 square miles) of forest between 2000 and 2017, an area double the size of Yosemite National Park. The rate of deforestation has accelerated in recent years, hitting highs of 980 and 850 square kilometers (380 and 330 square miles) respectively in 2016 and 2016.

Since 2000, meanwhile, the span of industrial plantations in the region, mainly for oil palms, has nearly quadrupled, with the fastest growth coming in the districts of Boven Digoel and Merauke, in Papua province.

According to Gaveau’s study, about 30 percent of all forest loss since 2000 in the region has been caused by clearing for industrial plantations.

In the past two years, the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry has relinquished to palm oil companies several tracts of land previously designated as forest zones. In the most recent such instance, dozens of square kilometers of forest, including carbon-rich peatland, were handed out to PT Sawit Makmur Abadi, an oil palm company operating in Papua’s Nabire district.

Gaveau says that when he presented his findings to officials in Papua, they denied that any new concessions had been granted in the years when the data suggested deforestation had peaked. Another surprise finding was that after the spike in 2015 and 2016, there was a sharp dip in deforestation in 2017.

Gaveau says he doesn’t have the answers to those questions yet, and that eventually the Papua Atlas will be able to shine a light on them.

“Our concession maps [used in the atlas] are better than what we used to have, but there’s still a lack of information,” he says. “For example, we don’t always know the permit date [of the concessions].”

Forest in West Papua. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Forest in West Papua.  The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) plans to roll out an interactive map showing the spread of plantations and roads in Indonesia’s Papua region. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Atlas 2.0

While the Papua Atlas is a work in progress, it already marks an improvement over its predecessor, the Borneo Atlas.

Also developed by CIFOR, the Borneo Atlas allows users to verify the location and ownership of more than 460 palm oil mills on the island and monitor deforestation in surrounding areas. Data about ownership show which companies linked to plantations are encroaching on forests and peat lands. It falls short, though, in its concession data, Gaveau says.

“One of the weaknesses of the Borneo Atlas is that the land ownership/concession data was patchy and often the ownership data wasn’t the correct one, or missing,” he says.

He attributes this to the government’s failure to make publicly available the detailed maps and related documents on plantation companies operating in the country.

He adds that despite efforts by civil society groups, particularly the NGO Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI), to push for the publication of the data, the government continues to hold out against releasing it.

“So the dataset we’re using is the one floating in the public sphere,” Gaveau says.

Similar to the Borneo Atlas, the Papua Atlas lacks these official data points; but the picture it paints is more faithful to what’s happening on the ground, largely because land-use changes and developments are still at an early stage in Papua, Gaveau says. As a result, it’s easier for civil society groups to understand what’s going on and who controls the land in Papua, he says.

“[I]f you’re talking about places like Riau [in Sumatra] … there’s no concession data at all and a lot of overlapping permits,” Gaveau says. “For Papua, it’s different. It looks like the local land-use plan [there] is much better aligned with the national land-use plan. So it’s easier in that sense because there’s fewer actors and less discrepancy between provincial and national land-use plans. So you see fewer examples of concessions being granted in forest areas.”

A woman from the Korowai tribe, who live in southeastern West Papua in the Indonesian Province of Papua. The region is home to some of the last expanses of pristine tropical forest left in the world, but now faces an influx of plantation companies that have already deforested much of Sumatra and Borneo. Image by Mari/Flickr.

Informed policymaking

The key difference between the Papua Atlas and the Borneo Atlas is that this time around, CIFOR is working closely with local officials to ensure that their planning and policymaking benefits from the tool, Gaveau says.

“We are consulting with local government people in charge of land-use planning like the regional development planning board [Bappeda], the environmental agency [DLH], and the public works agency,” he says. “We had good feedback from Bappeda and DLH because they think the data we’re presenting will be useful to them to review licenses.”

Gaveau says local officials are now reviewing oil palm licenses, a process begun before President Joko Widodo signed a nationwide moratorium in September on palm oil plantation licenses. The moratorium freezes the issuance of new licenses and instructs national ministries and local governments to carry out a sweeping review of oil palm licensing data.

“The idea is that the Indonesian local and national governments can check those deforestation footprints in concessions to review the permits,” Gaveau says. He adds that local officials in Papua seem eager to use the Papua Atlas to review the licenses.

“When I speak with local government officials, they’re very positive and enthusiastic about it,” he says. “I can see there’s a need for it because there’s a lack of transparency and data there. So this is going to really step up transparency in the plantation sector.”

And because the atlas also tracks the expansion of the road network in the region, local policymakers can use it to inform their infrastructure planning and projects.

“Papua is essentially an area slated with development, there’s a lot of road development,” Gaveau says. “It’s still in pristine state but things are changing rapidly, so by understanding [the region] on a real science basis, it will make the local government better manage the region.”

Papua is one of the richest regions of Indonesia in terms of natural resources, but ranks at the bottom for human and infrastructure development. Over a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line, more than double the national average of 10.7 percent, according to March 2017 data from the Central Statistics Agency.

The government’s development plans for the region include the Trans Papua highway, expected to go into operation this year; full electrification across Papua and West Papua by 2019, from the current 47 percent; and building seaports that are part of the wider maritime highway program.

Researchers and environmentalists have voiced concerns over the scale of the programs, however, citing the potential environmental impact and social cost to local communities. Papua is home to a large number of indigenous communities that rely heavily on the island’s forests, rivers and pristine coastlines for their food, fuel, housing materials and general livelihoods.

“New roads are being built to link the provinces of Papua and West Papua, and we know that with roads comes deforestation,” says CIFOR’s Agus, a geographic information systems (GIS) expert.

He says he hopes that the Papua Atlas he helped develop can guide policymakers to a development path for the region that doesn’t entail mass destruction of its forests and indigenous communities.

“Papua is important — it’s the last frontier of Indonesia, and one of the last in the tropical world,” Agus says. “The question is, what do its people want for the future?”

Banner image: Schoenherr’s blue weevil, a native insect of the region. Photo by Rhett Butler for Mongabay

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