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UMD Researchers Demonstrate Alarming Indonesian Forest Loss

July 1, 2014

Laura Ours 301-405-5722
Graham Binder 301-405-4076

Deforestation Rate Surpasses Brazil's, Despite Moratorium

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - A new study published in Nature Climate Change demonstrates an alarming increase of rainforest loss in Indonesia during the past 12 years—this loss is greater and faster than the rate shown in Brazil in 2012 which gained global attention as a harbinger of environmental stability.

rainfall in Indonesian rainforestThis new study indicates that forest loss rates are accelerating despite a 2011 moratorium on deforestation issued by the Indonesian government that was designed to combat climate change as well as to protect wildlife—for example, the conservation of orangutan and tiger habitat. The study also reveals a new scientific fact that demonstrates importance of preserving degraded forest, as more than 90 percent of the natural forest loss occurred within the degraded type, which contains significant carbon content.

The study, Primary forest cover loss in Indonesia over 2000–2012, was written by UMD geographical sciences professors Matthew C. Hansen and Peter V. Potapov, UMD geographical sciences graduate research assistant Belinda Arunarwati Margono and research associate Svetlana Turubanova, as well as Fred Stolle of the World Resource Institute. The researchers used earth observation data to quantify spatial and temporal trends of forest change in Indonesia.

Indonesia's virgin forest loss totaled 23,000 square miles over the 12-year period. Unlike Brazil, which has managed to reduce forest losses in recent years, the pace of Indonesia's losses has increased from year to year. The new study reports that the forests were cleared in part to make room for palm oil plantations and other agricultural endeavors. The study reveals an increasing proportion of natural forest loss over wetlands from 2000 to 2012 with bigger patches compare to of lowlands.

"We need to improve forest governance, the control of the forest itself, particularly on the area where forested wetland present" said Margono, who in addition to her service at UMD is an official at the Ministry of Forestry of Indonesia in Jakarta. "Improved forest management across the tropics is needed, and starts with accurate and timely baseline data of forest resources and their change over time; and made it publicly available to improve the good forest governance."

Indonesia's deforestation crisis has attracted worldwide attention, especially from Norway, which has pledged $1 billion if Indonesia passes and enforces legislature that slows the rate of forest loss as part of a larger plan to slow global rates of climate change.

Also among the study's key findings:

  • Implications for carbon emissions due to primary forest cover loss are very substantial given the carbon make up of primary forest and large wetland clearings;
  • These high rates of primary forest cover loss has made Indonesia the third largest global emitter of carbon dioxide;
  • Indonesia's forests contain 10% of the world's plants, 12% of the world's mammals, 16% of the world's reptile-amphibians, and 17% of the world's bird species. Indonesia is a mega-diverse country. Therefore, the primary forest cover loss directly results in habitat loss and plant and animal extinctions;
  • The details on Indonesian forest change had been murky prior to this study; the public and the scientific community now have data to improve the transparency of forest change in Indonesia.

Calling rainforests, the "lungs of the planet," Professor Hansen said that the study's findings, while alarming, do indicate hope for critical environmental reform.

"The good news is, with this study and our continuing research, we are advancing forest monitoring methods that can feed directly into improving forest governance," Professor Hansen said. "The lessons we've learned from Brazil and now Indonesia are generating a global discussion and recommended actions that can be applied to all nations."

Professor Hansen and other UMD researchers and students have made international headlines with innovative research and technology that has drastically improved the ability to observe deforestation at both local and global levels. These researchers led an international team in creating the world's first local-to-global mapping tool of forest loss, in conjunction with NASA and Google.