The Indonesian Inferno: A Completely Preventable Crisis

Could things be any crazier in Indonesia?

Forests engulfed in flames

Forests engulfed in flames

Scientists have been warning for many months that the Asia-Pacific region will face 'Godzilla' this year -- a fire-breathing El Niño drought of frightening severity. 

Devastating air pollution from Indonesian forest and peatland fires -- especially in Sumatra, Borneo, and New Guinea -- have become a virtually annual event.  Add a major El Niño drought to the mix -- as is happening now -- and the situation is inevitably a lot worse.

Predictably, the burning season this year has turned into an international disaster.  Among the more notable calamities:

- Because of the dense, choking smoke, schools and airports across large expanses of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have had to be repeatedly closed; Micronesia and the Philippines are also suffering.

- Hospitals in burning centers In Indonesia have reported large spikes in the number of people in respiratory distress, with medical authorities warning people not to go outside.

Heavy human toll

Heavy human toll

- Singapore has launched legal actions and arrested high-ranking employees from several forest-destroying corporations that are headquartered there, leading to a major diplomatic spat with Indonesia.

- This year, carbon pollution from rampaging Indonesian peat fires alone have exceeded the carbon emissions produced by the entire United States economy.

- Politicians in Indonesian Borneo recently wore face masks to Parliament, to protest the rampant fires, and have threatened a class-action lawsuit against the Indonesian federal government.

- The respected Indonesian forest expert and ALERT member, Dr Erik Meijaard, has recently called the nation's fires the "biggest environmental crime of the twenty-first century".

Given such an environmental, social, and political crisis, the Indonesian government must be moving heaven and earth to fight the fires and set the nation on a better course, right?

Wrong. 

Rather than implementing a large-scale fire ban this year, the Joko Widodo government has vacillated, saying the fires are a "not a problem you can solve quickly" with "no easy solutions", opting instead for localized actions and belated half-measures.

In addition, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments are currently established a new Council of Palm Oil Producer Countries.  High on the Council's agenda is dropping recent 'zero-deforestation' pledges made by a number of major forest-exploiting corporations, such as those that produce oil palm and wood pulp in Indonesia.  If successful, this will only worsen future fire crises.

Remarkably, Indonesia has a crucial tool available to it -- near-real-time data on fires and deforestation produced by Global Forest Watch.  With comparable data and the will to levy fines against those burning illegally, Brazil has been able to greatly reduce the number of illegal fires in the Brazilian Amazon.

A nation ablaze -- Indonesian fires shown by Global Forest Watch.

A nation ablaze -- Indonesian fires shown by Global Forest Watch.

No nation today is destroying forest faster than Indonesia.  The Indonesian government can come up with any number of excuses -- many fires are lit by smallholders, corruption is rampant, land tenure is often uncertain. 

The bottom line, however, is that the Indonesian government has both the capacity and the authority to declare and enforce large-scale fire bans.  Huge inroads could be made, especially in drought years.

What the government has been lacking, so far, is the political will to do so.


New technologies allow real-time monitoring of rampant forest destruction

New high-tech methods are giving scientists and conservationists a fighting chance to detect illegal deforestation -- before it's too late to save imperiled forests.  Here, Matt Finer, a researcher who's long worked in the western Amazon and Andes, tells us about his efforts to map the array of growing threats to the forests of Peru.

Imperiled primates in Peru

Imperiled primates in Peru

The Andean Amazon still has large tracts of mega-diverse, carbon-rich, and relatively intact tropical forest, making it one of the top conservation priorities in the world. However, the array of threats facing the region is rapidly growing.

A key problem hindering conservation and management efforts in the Andean Amazon is a lack of near real-time deforestation information. In recent years, we've seen major advances in tracking deforestation, but this information is often given to authorities far too late for enforcement action.

Two new satellite-based monitoring systems, Global Forest Watch and Terra-i, have made major strides towards real-time deforestation monitoring.

However, these systems, which are global-scale and based on moderate-resolution (250-500 meter) satellite data, often need further analysis to be relevant for Amazonian conservation.

The organization I work with, the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA), is using Landsat imagery (with 30-meter resolution) and special software (known as CLASlite) to rapidly detect forest loss.

ACA recently launched a new web portal, known as MAAP -- the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project -- to make our results widely available. We're focusing initially on the Peruvian Amazon, with plans to expand to Bolivia and Ecuador.

Three of our reports (Images #1, #5, and #6) focus on the spread of illegal gold mining in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. Notably, we found deforestation encroaching into the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve and entering the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve.

Red, black, and yellow areas show the growing threat of illegal gold mining

Red, black, and yellow areas show the growing threat of illegal gold mining

Images #2 and #9 map a so-called “sustainable” cacao operation that is actually clearing expanses of primary forest. The focus of an ALERT campaign, the legality of this deforestation is highly questionable.

Images #3 and #7 show that we can detect new logging roads. This is vital because illegal logging is challenging to detect with satellite imagery. But now we can readily find logging roads and point authorities to where illegal loggers are likely active.

Image #8 shows how Landsat and high-resolution imagery can be combined to map a new illegal coca plantation, in this case deep within the proposed Sierra del Divisor National Park.

Finally, Image #4 reveals a rapidly emerging threat, oil palm. Oil palm has caused major impacts in Southeast Asia and is quickly expanding in central and northern Peru.

In the near future, MAAP will continue tracking deforestation in the Andean Amazon while aiming to promote better law enforcement and policies to reduce illegal forest loss.

To receive our reports, just email us (maap@amazonconservation.org) with the word "Subscribe" in the subject line.

MAAP is a groundbreaking effort to shine a light on environmentally irreplaceable areas where illegal loggers, miners, and forest destroyers are running rampant.  Please help us to save some of the world's most biologically rich and imperiled ecosystems!

Bizarre story in the Washington Post

Sometimes truth is weirder than fiction.

Loggers in the Congo... timber harvest in Gabon  (photo by Bill Laurance)

Loggers in the Congo... timber harvest in Gabon (photo by Bill Laurance)

Two days ago (21 November 2014) the Washington Post ran a story entitled "Deforestation vs. daily life: The logging industry in Nigeria is fueling both", by Nicole Crowder, a staff photo editor.

The story was odd for two reasons.  First, via a tapestry of photos shot by Akintunde Akinleye of Reuters, it portrayed Nigeria's rainforest loggers in a remarkably sympathetic manner. 

This is understandable and forgivable.  Loggers are human beings, and like all of us are struggling to survive in an increasingly populous, hard-edged world.  While readily conceding that much forest harvesting in Nigeria is illegal, the images portrayed the loggers as humble battlers, scrabbling to make a living by carving great trees into sawn timber.

Second, and far more remarkably, the story grossly misstated the impact of logging and deforestation in Nigeria.  It claimed that Nigeria lost "just over 2 million hectares of forest annually between 2005-2010 due to agricultural expansion, logging and infrastructure development". 

That figure is massively wrong.  According to data compiled by Professor Matt Hansen from the University of Maryland and Global Forest Watch, forest loss in Nigeria from 2001 to 2012 ranged from a low of around 40,000 hectares per year to a peak of about 150,000 hectares per year.  

One doesn't have to be a math whiz to see that the actual deforestation figures -- or at least the best-available scientific estimates -- are a tiny fraction of those reported in the Washington Post

I was initially bemused by the story because the reported deforestation numbers, if true, would have put Nigeria on par with the Brazilian Amazon in the mid-late 1990s and early 2000s, when that region had the dubious distinction of being the overwhelming epicenter of global forest destruction

I lived and worked in the Amazon for much of that period, and it was a time of catastrophic forest loss and burning -- with palls of smoke from massive fires forcing airports to close and causing sharp spikes in cases of respiratory distress.

If forest destruction in Nigeria was happening as fast as the Post reported -- at a pace that rivaled that in the Amazon -- Nigeria's forests would have vanished in a heartbeat.

At ALERT we pride ourselves on our scientific stripes, but even we make mistakes from time to time.  However, we are not professional journalists.  When a legendary newspaper like the Washington Post gets its reporting so badly wrong, it does give one pause. 

-Bill Laurance

Dramatic erosion of world's last intact forests

Since 2000, more than 100 million hectares of the world's surviving intact forests have been seriously degraded -- by logging, road building, fragmentation, and other disturbances. 

That's an area three times the size of Germany.

Forests under assault...  (photo by William Laurance)

Forests under assault... (photo by William Laurance)

These are the conclusions of a new analysis and report by the Greenpeace GIS Laboratory, University of Maryland, and Transparent World, with help from the World Resources Institute and WWF-Russia.

The report focuses on "Intact Forest Landscapes" -- large expanses of remaining forest land that survive in pristine or near-pristine condition.  Key findings include:

• Since 2000, over 8% of the world's intact forests have been degraded

• Almost 95% of remaining intact forests are in tropical and boreal regions

• The largest areas of degradation were in the northern boreal forests of Canada, Russia, and Alaska, and in tropical regions such as the Amazon and Congo

• Canada, Russia, and Brazil contain nearly two-thirds of the world’s remaining Intact Forest Landscapes, and accounted for over half of all forest degradation

Road building, often linked to logging and extractive industries, was a key driver of forest degradation, with fires and forest clearing for agriculture having big impacts in some regions

The new maps on which these analyses are based can be analyzed using tools on the cutting-edge Global Forest Watch platform.  This is a dynamic, online forest monitoring and alert system that can detect changes in near real time.

You can read more about the main findings in this press release

Kudos to the groups that produced this report for a vital and timely analysis.