Indonesia plans to destroy another 14 million hectares of forest

How big is 14 million hectares of forest?  Imagine an area five times the size of Belgium.  Or imagine 28 million football fields.

Expect lots more forest devastation in Indonesia  (photo by William Laurance)

Expect lots more forest devastation in Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

That's how much native forest Indonesia plans to fell by 2020, mostly for industrial pulpwood and oil palm plantations -- and mostly on the mega-diversity islands of Sumatra and Borneo, where vast expanses of forest have already been lost in recent years.

Indonesia has become the world's biggest forest-destroying nation, overtaking Brazil for that dubious honor.  Annual rates of forest loss in Indonesia accelerated markedly from 2000 to 2012.

The plan to clear another 14 million hectares of native forest was confirmed last week by Hadi Daryanto, secretary-general of Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry. 

Much of the forest to be converted has been selectively logged, but recent studies have shown that such logged forests still sustain very substantial biodiversity and carbon storage, and still perform most of the important hydrological functions of old-growth forests.

In recent years Indonesia has accepted up to $1 billion in funding from Norway to help slow rates of forest loss and to improve forest management, in order to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. 

This latest announcement has many shaking their heads and wondering just what Norway's generous funding has actually achieved


The debate about forest conservation

In conservation practice, as in just about everything else, the pendulum of opinion swings back and forth. 

Right now, many ecologists are emphasizing the importance of conserving or rehabilitating forests that have been altered in various ways--such as selectively logged forests or secondary forests that are regenerating on formerly cleared land. 

Still valuable...  tiger footprint in a regenerating forest in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance).

Still valuable...  tiger footprint in a regenerating forest in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance).

One reason for this is that such modified habitats are so prevalent, and sometimes intensely vulnerable, across the planet.  For instance, around 400 million hectares of tropical forest globally is in some kind of logging estate.  Indonesia alone has at least 35 million hectares of selectively logged forest--an area larger than Germany--and much of this logged forest is unprotected and being cleared for agriculture. 

But there are also those who emphasize the values of old-growth forest.  One example is ALERT member Corey Bradshaw, who explains his views in this recent interview on Mongabay.

Bradshaw's views echo an analysis we published in Nature in 2011.  In that study, we found old-growth tropical forests had higher biodiversity-conservation values than all other modified forests or lands.  Nonetheless, native forest that had been selectively logged came in a close second, underscoring the importance of conserving these vulnerable forests.

In the end, no single conservation strategy always wins out.  All forests have value, and in many parts of the world, modified forests are just about all that remains.  That doesn't diminish the vital need to conserve old-growth forests wherever they still survive.

-Bill Laurance