The next big environmental crisis: Indonesian New Guinea

We had a bit of fun with our 'Drop Bears' blog last week -- which was based on a legitimate scientific paper but was entirely in jest -- but we're being deadly serious now. 

In brief, the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea -- one of three great remaining tropical wildernesses on Earth -- is under dire assault.  This is an issue that should light up the radar of conservationists throughout the world. 

Rampant oil palm development in Indonesia New Guinea  (photo (c) Ardiles Rante, Greenpeace).

Rampant oil palm development in Indonesia New Guinea (photo (c) Ardiles Rante, Greenpeace).

The other half of the island of New Guinea -- the nation of Papua New Guinea -- has certainly suffered its share of environmental ills, with rampant industrial logging and mining development, severe fires in the highlands, and the notorious SABLs -- Special Agricultural and Business Leases -- that have often been snapped up by foreign logging firms and now span some 11% of the nation's land area.

But the situation in Indonesian New Guinea -- the Provinces of Papua and West Papua -- is, if anything, even worse.  And it is likely to become one of the major rainforest crises of our time.

People in the know say its only a matter of time before environmental chaos descends in Indonesian New Guinea.  First, the government there places little emphasis on the rights of the island's many indigenous communities, who have lived on their traditional lands for millennia.

Second, the Indonesian government has transmigrated millions of Javanese and other Indonesians to New Guinea, displacing traditional peoples and destroying native ecosystems in the process.  This program has been enormously unpopular with native New Guineans.

Third, oil palm is exploding across Indonesia New Guinea.  The Indonesians have a saying, "Sumatra was yesterday, Borneo is today, and New Guinea is tomorrow", reflecting their wildly ambitious plans to expand oil palm, logging, mining, and other developments across the island at the expense of native ecosystems.

Indonesia now has the world's highest absolute rate of forest destruction  (from Mongabay.com).

Indonesia now has the world's highest absolute rate of forest destruction (from Mongabay.com).

And finally, Indonesia President Joko Widodo has just announced a scheme to build a 4,000 kilometer-long 'Trans-Papuan Highway' across Indonesian New Guinea.  This has the potential to open up the island like a flayed fish, exposing it a range of new environmental pressures -- the results of which are often fatal for forests and biodiversity

We've been accustomed to hearing about environmental crises in Borneo, Sumatra, and the Amazon.  Unless the international community can convince the Indonesian government to change its tack, get ready to start hearing a lot more about environmental crises in Indonesian New Guinea too.

 

Company to spend $12 million felling Papua's rainforests

How much rainforest can you destroy with $12 million?  Quite a lot, actually...

Make way for oil palm...  (photo by William Laurance)

Make way for oil palm... (photo by William Laurance)

According to a recent report by the Indonesian policy group Greenomics, an Indonesian oil palm company plans to spend $12 million over the next three years to clear over 38,000 hectares of intact rainforest in Papua

That's an area roughly the size of 75,000 football fields.

The Indonesian province of Papua encompasses the western half of the island of New Guinea.  Its ancient rainforests are among the biologically richest ecosystems on Earth.

Notably, the oil palm company planning to fell the forests, known as PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya Tbk -- or ANJT for short -- has been a key supplier of the mega-corporation Wilmar, the world's biggest palm oil producer. 

Earlier this year Wilmar issued a "no-deforestation pledge", promising not to clear any more forests for palm oil production.

Clearly, Wilmar's pledge will be laughable if it promises it won't clear forests, and then simply buys palm oil from ANJT -- which is busily bulldozing some of the world's most biologically diverse and carbon-rich rainforests.

So, let's all keep a sharp eye on Wilmar -- while urging it to steer clear of forest-killing companies like ANJT.

 

Why are Indonesia's forests so imperiled?

No nation on Earth is losing forest faster than Indonesia--the magical land of over 13,000 islands.  But what is causing all that deforestation?

No. 1 forest killer--industrial pulpwood plantation (photo by William Laurance)

No. 1 forest killer--industrial pulpwood plantation (photo by William Laurance)

Sinan Abood, ALERT member Lian Pin Koh, and their colleagues assessed the specific drivers of forest loss in Indonesia, between 2000 and 2010.  The picture that emerged has some surprises.

For one thing, the biggest driver of forest loss wasn't oil palm, but rather industrial pulpwood plantations.  Mega-corporations such as Asia Pulp & Paper and APRIL have cleared vast expanses of rainforest and peat-swamp forest for such plantations, especially in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo.

Second on the list was industrial logging.  This indicates that logged forests in Indonesia, which still harbor a great deal of biodiversity (see this blog), are intensely vulnerable to being cleared.

Oil palm, while still important, was actually number three on the list of industrial forest destroyers. 

Notably, the authors surmised that over half of all deforestation was caused by actors other than the big three above--including slash-and-burn farming, legal and illegal mining, and other causes.

The authors conclude that vast expanses of Indonesia's forest have been allocated to industrial concessions, especially logging concessions, where they are intensely vulnerable to being cleared.  Some of the greatest conservation opportunities in Asia revolve around finding ways to protect these imperiled industrial forests