Environmentalists say forest clearing in Sumatra is accelerating global warming [GALLO/GETTY]

Indonesia is home to 10 per cent of the world's remaining tropical rainforests but environmentalists warn that it is rapidly squandering its natural bounty through deforestation.

The increase in oil palm plantations - in part to meet booming global demand for biofuels - has been cited as a major reason for deforestation.

Biofuels boom

In depth


Ten years after Suharto's rule

Watch Al Jazeera's Indonesia coverage

Indonesia is expected to increase its production of palm oil by more than half over the next 10 years, largely in response to the biofuels boom, while palm oil prices have increased during recent years by about 50 per cent.

Fitrian Ardiansyah, the climate and energy programme director for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature in Indonesia, told Al Jazeera that oil palm plantations in Indonesia are a source of growing concern.

Ardiansyah worries that the cash crop is becoming an increasingly integral and indispensable part of Indonesia's economy.

Originally a West African plant, Dutch colonialists introduced oil palms to Indonesia during the 1840s.

A biofuel boom is expected to raise palm oil
production in Indonesia [EPA]
Its product, palm oil, is now an unseen but ubiquitous component of a variety of processed products on the international market, ranging from cooking oil to washing detergent and cosmetics.

But it is only during the past few years that palm oil's potential as a biofuel has led to its skyrocketing demand and price.

The palm oil market has grown by more than 16 per cent so far this year, buoyed partly by US and European policies to subsidise biofuels as a key alternative energy source.

Ardiansyah said statistics from the Indonesian ministry of forestry indicate that 70 per cent of Indonesia's oil palm plantations were originally natural forests.

Twin dangers

The demand for palm oil places a heavy burden on the environment for two main reasons, he said.

First, when forests are converted to plantations, biodiversity is badly affected, and some species are driven into extinction.

Industry groups say oil palms are only planted 
on already logged land [GALLO/GETTY]
Conservationists estimate that forest destruction, along with poaching, has reduced Indonesia's population of orang utans by nearly 43 per cent in the past decade, from 35,000 in 1996 to 20,000 today.

Second, land-clearing for oil palm plantations has reduced the tree count per hectare to one-third of the original density in Indonesia, reducing a crucial resource in the fight against global warming.

At least one-quarter of current deforestation in Indonesia is estimated to be occurring on peat bogs.

As the peat bogs are drained to plant palm trees, the loss of carbon into the atmosphere, combined with the burning down of the forest itself, accounts for massive releases of greenhouse gases.

It is estimated that plantations are able to store only about 20 per cent of the carbon that old-growth tropical forests do.

Indonesia, with more than 17,000 islands, is one of the few countries that still contain large swaths of pristine, tropical rainforest.

Even though it has lost an estimated 70 per cent of its original frontier forest, it still has a total forest area of more than 91 million hectares, with a host of plants and animals believed to be still undiscovered.

Indonesian rainforests are thought to contain
still undiscovered species [GALLO/GETTY]
But Greenpeace estimates that Indonesia had the world's fastest rate of deforestation between 2000-2005, losing the equivalent of 300 football pitches every hour.

There is no clear estimate of the country's current deforestation rate.

Even before claims that the biofuel boom was accelerating deforestation, environmentalists pointed out that Indonesia was the third-largest source of greenhouse gases in the world after the US and China.

But Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesia's environment minister, told Al Jazeera that these figures were outdated and that deforestation rates across the country had been reduced.

"We are now ensuring that palm oil plantations are not infringing on rainforests," he said.

"Palm oil plantations already fill millions of hectares of land, so there is no need for more clearing."

Witoelar said Indonesia has become increasingly tough on illegal logging, citing the case of three local government officials taken to court over such activities.

Patchy legal record

Indonesia's declining forests


Indonesia has 10 per cent of the world's remaining tropical rainforests

It has already lost 70 per cent of its original frontier forest

Greenpeace says Indonesia has lost an area of natural forest the size of Switzerland every year in recent years, or about 300 football pitches every hour

 

Driven by a sharp spike in global palm oil prices, Indonesia is expected to increase its production of palm oil by more than half over the next 10 years

About 20 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to come from global deforestation

The three countries producing the most emissions through deforestation are Indonesia (35 per cent), Brazil (19 per cent) and Malaysia (10 per cent)

But Jakarta's legal track record on deforestation has been patchy.

Indonesian authorities were roundly criticised over the case of logging magnate Adelin Lis.

 

According to media reports, the government accused Lis of being an "environmental destroyer" when he was arrested and his web of companies were accused of logging $30 bn worth of Sumatra's timber outside concession areas between 1998 and 2005.

Prosecutors wanted to send him to jail for 10 years, but instead he walked free from court in November last year when judges declared the illegal logging charges technically invalid because he was a concession owner using private funds.

A letter from Indonesia's forestry minister was produced during his trial saying that his companies' activities were only "administrative violations".

The day after his acquittal, police went to his home with plans to arrest him again, but he had gone into hiding.

A WWF report released in February signalled out Sumatra, the focus of Lis's logging activities, as a hotbed of climate change acceleration and endangered species extinction.

The devastation caused by paper and palm oil industries is matched "by no other type of deforestation", it said.

About 30 per cent of natural forest in the Sumatran province of Riau has been cleared for oil palm plantations since 1982, according to the WWF report.

Riau's peat lands are estimated to hold South-East Asia's largest store of carbon as well as being home to some of the world's most biodiverse ecosystems, including endangered species of elephants and orang utans.

Corruption blamed

 

Arief Wicaksono, Greenpeace's political adviser in Indonesia, said the major problem with Indonesia's deforestation lies with illegal logging and corruption.

 

"A lot of money is being directed towards stopping deforestation in Indonesia, but much of that money disappears down a black hole," he said.

Part of the problem comes from decentralisation and the stemming of central government money, leaving local officials more likely to resort to quick cash methods of raising funds, such as selling land to oil palm plantations, he said.

But Rosediana Suharto, chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Board, said the clamour of environmental groups has drowned out the sensible nature of plantation owners' management.

He said plantation owners were only using areas that had already been logged, and much of that land was cleared during the time of Suharto, Indonesia's late former president who resigned in 1998.

He conceded that illegal logging was a major problem, but blamed foreign countries for "supporting the illegal loggers".

"The money is all coming from outside of the country, from Malaysia, China, Europe and the US," he said.

Indonesia's vastness - 1,919,440 square km and more than 17,000 islands - makes the task of tracking illegal logging extremely difficult.

And whatever the true extent of Indonesia's deforestation and whoever is responsible, the destructive influence extends far beyond the huge country's borders and exacerbates global headaches such as climate change, biodiversity depletion and even spiralling food prices.

Ifzal Ali, chief economist of the Manila-based Asian Development Bank, warned in April that cutting down forests to produce palm oil-based biofuels in Indonesia was not only harming the global environment but also pushing the price of edible oils to "stratospheric levels" worldwide.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies