So that we can have all the chocolate, margarine, biofuels and toilet paper we want, the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo are disappearing and at such a fast rate that they’ll be gone in 20 years.
Indonesia’s rainforests are the third-largest in the world and are UNESCO heritage sites. Despite this, more than half of the rainforests have been cut down and the last untouched areas, such as the provinces of Aceh and Papua, are the next targets.
The loss of so many trees affects us all. The trees store carbon – each hectare of rainforest stores the amount of carbon that 181 U.S. vehicles emit in one year (a single car emits 1.38 metric tons of carbon in a year according to the EPA’s estimate) – so when they are cut down, the carbon is released into the atmosphere. A 2012 study from Nature Climate Change found that deforestation to make way for plantations in Kalimantan led to more than 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, the equivalent of annual emissions from 28 million vehicles.
Unspeakable Losses to Biodiversity and Communities
UNESCO‘s description emphasizes the unique biodiversity of Sumatra’s and Borneo’s rainforests while clearly stating that the forests have already become “reduced to isolated remnants” surrounded by humanmade plantations. Just 30 years ago, Sumatra and Borneo, the sixth and third largest islands in the world, were populated with tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans. Now every single one of these animals is endangered, as is the existence of numerous exotic animals and plants. Only 250-400 tigers still live in the forests, fewer than 100 rhinos and dwindling numbers of orangutans, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Villagers have also seen their livelihoods literally go up in flames as the rainforests are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. As one man from the village of Bayesjaya tells the Guardian:
We used to get resin, wood, timber, fuel from the forest. Now we have no option but to work for the palm oil company. The company beat us. The fire was deliberate. This forest was everything for us. We used it as our supermarket, building store, chemist shop and fuel supplier for generations of people. Now we must put plastic on our roofs.
The deforestation is, in many cases, being carried out by other poverty-stricken villagers and migrant laborers. Last year saw 600 major land conflicts, many of which became violent and set communities against security forces and multinational companies.
Indonesian Government’s Moratorium On Deforestation Isn’t Working
While millions of acres of rainforests are nominally protected under Indonesian law, corruption is rampant. Illegal loggers continue to clear trees for coal, copper and gold mines and plantations of acacias or oil palms.
Indonesia’s government has taken measures to stop the destruction, announcing last week that it was committed to extending a moratorium on deforestation for two years. The giant paper company Asia Pacific Resources International (April) had actually planned to clear 60,000 hectares of rainforest in 2012 but postponed this pending the moratorium, according to internal documents seen by the Observer.
Due to “loopholes in the law,” only new licenses and primary forests are covered by the government’s moratorium and not tiger and elephant habitats where logging had previously been allowed. Indeed, April still has permission to cut down 20,000 hectares of forest and to have up to one-third of its timber be from “mixed tropical hardwood.”
Some companies such as Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) have agreed, under pressure from international and local activists, only to rely on plantations for wood and end logging in rainforests.
Global Demand for Palm Oil
We in the West also bear some of the responsibility for the loss of the rainforests. Oil palms are the source of palm oil, which is in high demand among global food manufacturers because it is “high-yielding, cheap and versatile” and can be substituted for butter, lard and soy, olive, canola and partially hydrogenated oils. However, contrary to any manufacturers’ claims about it being “healthy,” palm oil is high in saturated fat, low in polyunsaturated fat and promotes heart disease — it is no better than butter, lard or trans fats.
It’s a small step, but you can do your part and read food labels atod avoid products containing palm or palm kernel oil. Or, you can seek out products that contains palm oil that’s been sustainably produced and is certified by the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
“This is the fastest, most comprehensive transformation of an entire landscape that has ever taken place anywhere in the world including the Amazon,” says Yuyun Indradi, a political forest activity with Greenpeace in Jakarta, in the Guardian.
Deforestation means more floods, fires and droughts and, chillingly, “no animals” — and, before we know it, no rainforests.
Photo via winder west/Flickr