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.

 

ALERT's campaign to save island paradise from loggers

ALERT today is launching a campaign to help tell the world about Woodlark Island -- a small but important paradise off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea.

At least 42 different species -- including the beautiful Woodlark cuscus, a native marsupial -- are endemic to the island, living nowhere else on Earth.  And the island has harbored traditional cultural groups who have lived there sustainably for thousands of years.

The Woodlark cuscus -- worried about loggers

The Woodlark cuscus -- worried about loggers

That's alarming because a Malaysian logging company is about to assault Woodlark Island, with plans to log up to half of the island using heavy-handed industrial extraction methods.

Many of the island's native landowners are worried, because the foreign logging company, Karridale Limited, has evidently secured logging rights to the entire island.

Much remains unknown about Karridale Limited's intentions.  The company has been far from forthcoming about its plans, and has been accused of consulting inadequately with the island's traditional inhabitants.

This is an issue to watch closely.  Careful, small-scale logging is one thing.  But far too often, aggressive Malaysian logging corporations have run rough-shod over native forests and peoples

Today, ALERT is issuing a press release to over 800 media contacts about Woodlark Island -- urging those who care about nature to watch over and defend this small but unique corner of the world. 

The future of an island paradise is at stake.

Please share with your networks.

Logging sharply increases fire risk for endangered forests

The Mountain Ash forests of southeastern Australia are renowned for supporting the world's tallest flowering plants.  Sadly, clear-cut logging and fierce fires have devastated these once-magnificent forests, with just a tiny fraction of the original old-growth forest remaining.  Now a new study shows that logged forests are far more likely to burn than those that have never been logged.

Razed forests...

Razed forests...

The study, led by Chris Taylor and renowned forest-expert David Lindenmayer, was based on careful statistical analysis of past fire and logging histories.  It found that younger forests -- those logged 7-36 years previously -- were far more likely to suffer intense fires during dry conditions.

Logged forests, they found, had an altered structure and flammable slash in the understory, which made the forests much more vulnerable to intense fires.

The intense fires have a huge impact on native wildlife, particularly the endangered Leadbeater's Possum, which requires mature forest for survival.  Such mega-fires have also killed hundreds of people and destroyed thousands of homes and private properties in southeastern Australia. 

The authors argue that current logging is creating a long-term legacy, making the small patches of surviving old-growth forest much more vulnerable to devastating fires in the future. 

Halting industrial logging, they argue, is the only solution for the endangered Mountain Ash forests.

Eco-crisis: The devastation of Borneo's forests

Warning: Do not look at this map if you don't want to feel depressed. 

The image shows how much of Borneo's biodiversity-rich forests have been destroyed or degraded in the last four decades -- and it's enough to ruin anybody's breakfast.

Trouble for orangutans and lots of other species  (from Mongabay)

Trouble for orangutans and lots of other species (from Mongabay)

From 1973 to 2010, the tropical rainforests of Borneo have been razed twice as fast as those elsewhere on the planet, according to a freely available study that just appeared in PLoS One.

In the paper, David Gaveau, Sean Sloan, and colleagues analyzed Landsat imagery to see how much of Borneo's mega-diversity forests have been cleared, burned, or degraded by industrial logging. 

It's not a pretty picture -- as also detailed here in the leading environmental website Mongabay.

In 1973, more than three-quarters of Borneo was blanketed by native forest, much of which was undisturbed or little disturbed, according to the study.

By 2010 nearly 17 million hectares of the forest -- an area larger than England, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined -- had vanished.

Echoing an earlier study that spanned all of Indonesia, industrial logging, oil palm, and wood-pulp plantations were apparently the biggest culprits, along with slash-and-burn farming.

Increasingly, large expanses of Borneo are dominated by selectively logged native forests.  As highlighted previously here at ALERT, these forests still retain considerable biodiversity and carbon, but are intensely vulnerable to being cleared or burned.

The challenge at hand for Borneo is clear, the study concludes.

It's vital to slow forest destruction, by safeguarding existing protected areas and especially by defending the selectively logged forests that now increasingly dominate the island.

 

IUCN slams plan to de-list Tasmanian forests

The Tony Abbott government's scheme to carve out 74,000 hectares of Tasmania's World Heritage forest for industrial logging is looking increasingly battered.

Lots of criticisms of the Abbott government plan...

Lots of criticisms of the Abbott government plan...

First there was the revelation that the government's proposal was prepared without consulting outside experts at all.  This is tantamount to building a brick house without mortar--the whole edifice is likely to be exceedingly weak.

On top of that, a trainload of prominent Australians and Aussie organizations have lined up in opposition to the proposal, and it got a giant thumbs-down from the Australian Senate.

And now the IUCN--the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world's largest coalition of conservation organizations--has flatly denounced the Abbott plan.

The IUCN's report to the World Heritage Committee--which will consider the government's bid in Doha, Qatar next month--is unreservedly critical of the scheme.

The report labeled the government plan "clearly inappropriate" and said it provided "relatively scant information" to support its case. 

Among other criticisms, it said de-listing the forests would "impact negatively on the outstanding universal value of the property".

Nothing is certain, but many believe the IUCN's detailed report--by so resoundingly slamming the Abbott government's scheme--could heavily influence the World Heritage Committee's decision.