Deforestation in Sumatra, Indonesia – mapping the "thwacking"

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Looking at the new maps of Sumatra's forests, the Once-ler in Dr Seuss' The Lorax would not conclude that we "cared a whole awful lot," but rather that we were cutting them down as fast as we please.

It's nearly 35 years since I first flew over Sumatra, an island in western Indonesia. Looking out of the plane window, the dark green forests stretched to the horizon. Even if there weren't any Truffula trees, there were many herds of elephants, families of tigers, groups of monkeys and many thousands of lone orangutans calling and moving around the forest, hardly ever crossing paths with humans. Then came the organized loggers, the transmigration settlements, and the plantations – rubber, oil palm and industrial timber.

About half Sumatra's forests have been lost since 1985. Last year, a WWF report (pdf) found that forest cover in Riau province, central Sumatra, has fallen from 78% to 25% in 25 years.

As elsewhere, the forest remnants are mostly small, scattered, with fragmented and barely viable populations of large wildlife such as tigers, rhinos, and elephants. All these are more susceptible to local extinction than ever before. The report calculates that between 1990 and 2007 the average annual CO2 emissions from forest loss, degradation, peat decomposition and fires in Riau alone was 0.22 gigatons – equivalent to nearly 60% of Australia's total annual emissions, or 39% of the UK's.

The course of forest loss on Sumatra has been tracked and mapped and analyzed since the early 1980s, and its root causes much discussed (pdf). The new Sumatra forest maps have been released to show the startling loss of forest in GoogleEarth format. This was part of David Gaveau's PhD research at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), and was financed by a grant under the World Bank's Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund

The new website has been set up to enable free and easy access to environmental information as an act of transparency. The maps are the property of the Wildlife Conservation Society-Indonesia Program, Conservation International, and Indonesian Ministry of Forestry's Directorate General of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PHKA) – but all have agreed to make these data freely available to improve environmental governance.

Most instructive are the 1972-2007 map for southern Sumatra, looking at the 'coffee belt', and the 1990-2006 map for northern Sumatra looking at industrial plantations (rubber and oil-palm) and roads. There is some good text to help interpret the patterns.

But are these maps a conservation tool or just academic displacement behaviour? It really all depends on what happens next. Will they be used to rouse public concern to the level where the issue becomes really political? Will they be translated into Indonesian? Will the exercise be repeated every couple of years to track the loss, and will the people of Indonesia anxiously await the latest figures?

The admirable forest mapping done by various donors over the last 30 years was never repeated, and since each new map uses different criteria and methods, so no two maps are really comparable. Certainly the intent behind the new maps is to make a difference, to make the stark reality of the loss of Sumatran forest loss available to as many people as possible, and to result in better conservation management. Nothing is going to change without government backing, but without clear popular support, the backing may wither and the new maps and a recent pledge by the 10 Sumatran governors together with the ministers for environment and forestry may become just part of the historical documentation of the demise of Sumatra's forests. We did a project a few years ago with a consortium of conservation NGOs in Indonesia using mass media to raise people's awareness and concern about Indonesia's high rate of deforestation which provided important lessons (pdf).

It remains true that, as the Once-ler concluded, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing's going to get better. It's not."


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