It's not just big corporations that are killing Indonesia's forests

Corporations are easy targets as environmental bad-guys -- they're big, faceless, wealthy entities.  And in countries like Indonesia, many corporations -- including oil palm, wood pulp, timber, and mining companies -- have had bad environmental records.

But it's an oversimplification to blame the corporations for everything, as Indonesia-based conservation scientist Erik Meijaard argues in a recent editorial.

It's not just corporations that are killing forests  (photo by William Laurance)

It's not just corporations that are killing forests (photo by William Laurance)

Meijaard homes in on an uncomfortable truth: half or more of all forest destruction is evidently caused by smallholders -- farmers and locals who burn or log forests, often illegally.

In a recent email message, Meijaard adds that deforestation is also being driven by small- and medium-scale investors.  "These are not small, poor, disadvantaged farmers, but government and law enforcement officials, local legislature members, local business people."

One key problem is that the rule of law in Indonesia is so lax, and corruption so rampant.  Even those who get caught usually find it easy to bribe their way out of trouble.

Indonesia's newly elected president, Joko Widodo, was originally trained as a forester, and he is being urged to follow through on his campaign promises to "eradicate illegal logging, illegal fishing, and illegal mining" and "enforce environmental laws".

In politics, promises are cheap.  Action is what counts.  And despite plenty of talk and promises in the past, Indonesia now has the world's highest rate of forest loss.

A number of mega-corporations in Indonesia have recently pledged to halt their forest-destroying ways.  The jury is still out on these promises.

But it's going to take a broader effort -- to enforce the law and protect environments from all illegal exploiters, large and small -- to save Indonesia's vanishing forests.


Using drones for environmental research and spying

Think of them as robots with wings.  When it comes to the environment, drones are all the rage right now. 

Ready to launch... forest monitoring in Nepal

Ready to launch... forest monitoring in Nepal

For instance, Brazil is experimenting with drones as a way to monitor forests and land-use in the Amazon, especially for keeping a close eye on landowners who try to clear forests illegally.

And Kenya plans to deploy drones to spy on poachers within 52 of its national parks, after a wildly successful pilot program found drones reduced poaching by up to 96%.

ALERT member Lian Pin Koh is a leader in developing cost-effective drones for conservation research.  Here he tells us a bit more about his work:

Conservation is impossible without good field data.  Traditionally, conservation scientists have relied on ground-based surveys, manned aircraft, and satellite images to acquire the data they need.  But all these approaches have disadvantages—they are often expensive, difficult, or limited in the area they can cover.

For this reason Serge Wich and I founded the ConservationDrones project in 2012.

Conservation drones are low-cost, autonomous, and operator-friendly aerial vehicles.  They can fly pre-programmed missions of up to 40 kilometers, and acquire high-quality videos and photos.

The drone’s ’brain’ is an autopilot system developed by an online community of drone builders.  Many drones are equipped with a still-photograph camera with built-in GPS, so that all photographs are geo-tagged.

The flight path for each mission is created by simply clicking waypoints on a Google satellite map.  The drone is hand-launched, and then goes about its mission and returns and lands automatically.

A drone's-eye view: no place to hide for illegal loggers

A drone's-eye view: no place to hide for illegal loggers

Remarkably, our drones cost just a few thousand dollars each.  We are using them to survey forests, to track rhinos, orangutans, and elephants, and to detect poachers and illegal logging and forest burning. 

Because they are so cheap, easy to use, and versatile, our drones are increasingly being used by NGOs and governments around the world.  We think they can make a big contribution to nature conservation—the sky’s the limit!


Big fine for illegal forest-clearing in Sumatra

The oil palm company PT Kallista Alam has just been slapped with a fine of over US$9 million for illegally burning forest in the Tripa Peat Swamps, part of the protected Leuser Ecosystem in the Aceh region of northern Sumatra, Indonesia.

Peat swamps under siege...

Peat swamps under siege...

The landmark fine was levied by the Indonesian courts.  The company was also ordered to pay almost US$21 million to help restore the affected forests.

“This is a clear message to companies working in Aceh who think they can destroy protected forests and get away with it”, said Muhammad Nur, Chairman of WALHI Aceh (Friends of the Earth Indonesia).

Protecting the imperiled Leuser forests--the only place on Earth where tigers, orangutans, elephant and rhinos still coexist--has been a key priority for ALERT (see blog on Leuser below).