Turning just one Sumatran province's forests and peat swamps into pulpwood and palm oil plantations is generating more annual greenhouse gas emissions than the Netherlands and rapidly driving the province's elephants into extinction, a new study by WWF and partners has found.
The study found that in central Sumatra's Riau Province nearly 10.5 million acres of tropical forests and peat swamp have been cleared in the last 25 years. Forest loss and degradation and peat decomposition and fires are behind average annual carbon emissions equivalent to 122 percent of the Netherlands total annual emissions, 58 percent of Australia's annual emissions, 39 percent of annual UK emissions and 26 percent of annual German emissions.
Riau was chosen for the study because it is home to vast peatlands estimated to hold Southeast Asia’s largest store of carbon, and contains some of the most critical habitat for Sumatran elephants and tigers. It also has Indonesia's highest deforestation rate, substantially driven by the operations of global paper giants Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited (APRIL).
At last December's Bali Climate Change Conference, the Indonesian minister of Forestry pledged to provide incentives to stop unsustainable forestry practices and protect Indonesia's forests. The governor of Riau province has also made a public commitment to protect the province's remaining forest.
“This groundbreaking report gives U.S. businesses a roadmap for getting the biggest bang for their buck,” said Adam Tomasek, managing director of the Borneo and Sumatra program at WWF-US. “An investment in Riau Province would both protect some of the world's largest carbon stores and safeguard endangered tigers, elephants and local communities.”
Carbon emissions are likely to increase, the study predicted, as most future forest clearance is planned for areas with deep peat soils.
“The loss of Sumatra's carbon-rich forest ecosystems is not just Indonesia's problem – this affects the environmental health of the entire planet,” added Tomasek.
The report by WWF, Remote Sensing Solution GmbH and Hokkaido University breaks new ground by analyzing for the first time the connection between deforestation and forest degradation, global climate change, and population declines of tigers and elephants.
The province has lost 65 percent of its forests over the last 25 years and in recent years has suffered Indonesia's fastest deforestation rates. In the same period there was an 84 percent decline in elephant populations, down to only 210 individuals, while tiger populations are estimated to have declined by 70 percent to perhaps just 192 individuals.
““WWF is alarmed that the loss of forests is taking such a high toll not only on the remaining wild elephants and tigers in Sumatra but also on global climate change,” said Dr Sybille Klenzendorf, director of species conservation at WWF-US. “The message is clear – the world must commit to solutions that can save these forests if we are to significantly slow the rate of climate change and allow nature and people to flourish in Sumatra.”
Led by global paper giants APP and APRIL, the pulp & paper and palm oil industries are driving Riau's Sumatran tigers and elephants to local extinction in just a few years by destroying their habitat, the study found.
As part of its efforts to save Sumatra’s remaining natural forests, WWF is working urgently with the Indonesian government and the pulp and palm oil industries to identify and protect the forests that are home to elephants, tigers, orang-utans and rhinos. Sumatra is the only place on Earth where all four species co-exist.
The study’s estimates may over- or underestimate actual carbon emissions due to the fact that for many processes, detailed data on carbon stocks and carbon emissions (stock decrease) are not available. Concerning the historical situation the study solely relied on Landsat satellite imagery, since no other data on land cover are available. Factoring in all possible errors and uncertainties, the study’s authors believe that the results indicate at least the order of magnitude of the emissions correctly.
Most of Riau’s forests were cleared since 1982 to make way for new industrial plantations, with approximately 30 percent cleared for the palm oil plantations and around 20 percent for pulpwood plantations.
Since 1982, as the forest were cleared, there was a clear correlation in Riau with declining Sumatran elephant populations, which suffered up to an 84 percent decline in numbers – down to as few as 210 individuals in 2007.
Since 1982, Sumatran tiger population estimates are down 70 percent, to perhaps just 192 individuals. Unless the last remaining patches of tiger habitat are connected by wildlife corridors, Riau will no longer have a viable tiger population, the study predicts.
The full report, “Deforestation, Forest Degradation, Biodiversity Loss, and CO2 Emissions in Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia” and a summary report “How Pulp and Paper and Palm Oil from Sumatra increases Global Climate Change and Drives Tigers and Elephants to Local Extinction” is available at www.worldwildlife.org