Indonesia has offered a glimpse of hope for the environment, with its rate of deforestation having decreased for a third year in a row as a result of the government’s response to the devastating 2015-2016 fire crisis, even as global deforestation continues apace.
However, environmental researchers remain cautious about the actual level of forest cover loss in the country as the full impact of fires in 2019 might have been obscured by haze and bad weather conditions.
Despite experiencing the third-highest rate of deforestation in the world, primary forest loss in Indonesia dropped significantly last year, hitting its lowest figures since 2003, according to the recently launched Global Forest Watch report.
Indonesia lost 324,000 hectares of primary forest, just behind Brazil (1.36 million ha) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (475,000 ha), based on satellite data collated by the University of Maryland and released by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in its report.
Researchers have attributed this decline in forest loss to successful forest protection policies that were put in place after Indonesia’s unprecedented 2015-2016 haze and fire crisis, which led to the loss of 929,000 ha of forest cover in 2015 – an all-time high.
“This decrease comes despite an intense fire season in 2019, which in previous years [would have] resulted in large areas of primary forest loss,” said the Global Forest Watch’s Geographic Information System research manager, Elizabeth Goldman. “A number of policies in Indonesia have contributed to this positive story.”
She said contributing factors included increased law enforcement against illegal forest fires and land clearing, a moratorium on new oil palm plantations, Papua and West Papua governors’ initiative to protect their forest cover and the establishment of the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG).
However, WRI Indonesia senior manager for climate and forests Arief Wijaya cautioned that clouds and haze may have obscured some deforestation incidents that happened between October and November 2019, which could mean the actual level of forest loss is higher.
“Because of this, there is the possibility that [the effects of] fires in 2019 will pick up in [...] 2020,” Arief said recently, noting that the phenomenon also occurred in 2015 and became discernible the following year.
Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said in late April that the government would continue to prioritize its mitigation of land and forest fires at a time when resources are stretched due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Siti said the special task force on the ground would continue its hard work to prevent any threat of fires this year, especially in regions prone to catching fire.
“As per the President’s instructions, even amid these trying times due to COVID-19, we mustn’t allow our priority services to be disrupted,” she said during a virtual discussion.
According to a recent study by the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), Indonesia is approaching the peak of the dry season in June and July, particularly in the provinces of Riau, South Sumatra, Jambi, Central Kalimantan, North Kalimantan and East Kalimantan.
According to the BRG’s observations between April and May, Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra are the three provinces that are prone to fires igniting on dried peatland.
The positive trend in Indonesia’s efforts to bring down the rate of deforestation is a culmination of state efforts to respond to seething criticism from neighboring countries affected by choking transboundary haze in 2015 and 2016.
The government is also set to receive a US$56 million grant from Norway in June this year, as the first payment for Indonesia’s successful reduction in deforestation and carbon emissions under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) cooperation scheme.
“It’s fair to say Indonesia had helped [bring] primary cover loss down [for the last] three years at least in some part due to the government's effort to support that,” WRI senior research fellow Frances Seymour said.
Indonesia accounts for around 2 percent of total global forest cover, roughly equivalent to 92 million ha.
Other countries like Brazil and the DRC still showed increased deforestation due to agricultural expansion and other land-use conversions.
“If governments put in place good policies and enforce the law, forest loss goes down. But, if the government relaxes restrictions on burning and signals interest and intent to clear indigenous territory for exploitation, forest loss goes up,” Seymour said.
In total, the world lost 11.9 million ha of tree cover in 2019.
“Nearly a third of that loss or 3.8 million hectares was the primary forest equivalent of losing one football pitch of rainforest every six seconds for the entire year,” WRI forest program global director Rod Taylor said at the report’s launch.
Meanwhile, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations Environment Program recently released a three-decade joint review of the global rate of deforestation.
According to the 2020 State of the World’s Forests (SOFO) report, it is estimated that around 420 million ha of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses since 1990, although the rate has decreased recently.
From 2010 to 2015, the world lost 12 million ha of forest per year to deforestation, while between 2015 and 2020 the annual rate of deforestation was at 10 million ha per year.
Between 2000 to 2010, this figure stood at 15 million ha, and between 1990 and 2000, some 16 million ha of forest was lost to deforestation every year.
Though up to 93 percent of the world’s forests can naturally regenerate, they were not able to keep up with the rate of deforestation, with annual agricultural expansion rising from 8 million ha between 1990 and 2000 to 10 million ha (2000-2010), 7 million ha (2010-2015) and 5 million ha (2015-2020) per year.