Forests losing battle against plantations

Adianto P. Simamora, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta - 30 October 2008

Massive forest conversions, rising demand for timber and infrastructure projects are the main causes for Indonesia's world-leading rate of deforestation, a new study has found.

The study by the Indonesian Forest Watch (FWI) categorically blamed deforestation on forest conversions into palm oil plantations conducted by big companies.

"We find palm oil companies prefer to convert forest areas rather than utilize idle land for their expansion as they get extra incentives from trees in the cleared forests," said Wirendro Sumargo, FWI coordinator for public campaign and policy dialogue, on Tuesday.

The field study was conducted in Central Kalimantan and Riau and Papua.

It said Central Kalimantan was seeing the fastest rate of conversion of forest area into palm oil plantations.

"In the last 17 years, the rate of forest conversion to palm oil plantations increased by 400 times to 461,992 hectares (per year) in 2007 from only 1,163 hectares (per year) in 1991," the study said, quoting data from the Central Kalimantan administration.

"Our finding shows that about 816,000 hectares of forest (there) was cleared for palm oil plantations in 2006."

He said 14 percent of the 3 million hectares of peatland in the province had been converted into palm oil plantations.

In Riau, the local administration allocated 38.5 percent of its total forest area for conversion into plantations.

"As of 2006, there were 2.7 million hectares of plantations, including 1.5 million hectares of palm oil plantations," he said.

Wirendro said that out of the 550,000 hectares of forests felled for plantations in Papua, 480,000 hectares had been allocated for growing palm oil.

The Forestry Ministry has said total palm oil plantations increased to 6.1 million hectares in 2006 from 1.1 million hectares in 1990.

The ministry has claimed the rate of deforestation between 1987 and 1997 remained constant at 1.8 million hectares per year before spiking to 2.8 million hectares per year by 2000 mainly because of severe forest fires.

However, between 2000 and 2006, the rate fell to 1.08 million hectares per year, it added.

The Indonesian Forest Watch has said the deforestation rate stood at 1.9 million hectares per year from 1989 to 2003.

The Guinness Book of World Records puts Indonesia as the country with the highest rate of deforestation on the planet, citing a rate equivalent to 300 soccer fields per hour.

Wirendro said another factor contributing to the acceleration of forest deforestation was the rising demand for timber due to the low supply of raw materials from industrial forests managed by pulp and paper firms in the country.

"The capacity of paper industries increased sharply from one million tons in 1987 to 11 million tons in 2007, while the capacity of pulp companies also rose from 0.5 million tons to 6.5 million tons over the same period," he said.

"But, the industries could only supply about 50 percent of the needed raw materials. We believe the companies also take timber from outside their concessions, including production forests (to offset the shortages)."

Wirendro said wood product industries, which bought wood from illegal and illegal sources, could be the main driver of deforestation in Indonesia.

There are currently seven pulp and paper companies operating in the country.

The study said the previous government's transmigration programs had also contributed to deforestation.

In Riau, 773,331 hectares of forest were converted into transmigration areas, while the Papua administration cut down 375,203 hectares of forest to make way for resettlement zones.