Indonesian Deforestation Overtakes Brazil: a colossal collapse in biodiversity beckons

A new study has shown that Indonesia’s rate of tropical deforestation now surpasses that of Brazil. In the last 12 years, some 60,000 square kilometres of virgin forest have been cut down to make way for palm oil plantations, housing and industrial farms.

Huge swathes of forest have been hacked down for oil palm plantations
Huge swathes of forest have been hacked down for oil palm plantations

With 10% of the world’s known plants, and 12% of its mammals, Indonesia is threatening to destroy the biodiversity that helps make it such a special country. It is both a testament to the rapid population growth, and associated demand for jobs and economic growth, that such deforestation is allowed to persist.

As early as the 16th century, the Portuguese recognised the economic benefits of exploiting Indonesia’s natural resources. The name ‘Spice Islands’ became synonymous with the Age of Discovery and the potential wealth it could bring to Europe. The Portuguese were quick to establish trading posts along the coasts of Java, Flores, Solor and the plethora of other Indonesian islands. The interior was impenetrable, covered in dense tropical forest, not yet economically exploitable.

It was the Dutch that moved in next, finally creating the Dutch East Indies which would last from the end of the 18th century until 1949. On arrival they encountered a fiercely-divided tribal society concentrated in regional coastal towns, with few settlements in the interior accessible to the Europeans. Indeed, maps for the period reflect the heavily-forested nature of Java.

18th century Dutch map of Java
18th century Dutch map of Java

It was during this long colonial period that industrial-scale deforestation began, room being created for plantations, rice fields and new settlements. Still, by the turn of the 20th century the population was only 43 million, compared to the 237.6 million recorded in 2010.

It is such a population explosion, seen across the developing world in the past 100 years, that has increased the vulnerability of Indonesia’s forests. Deforestation has been essential in providing living space for this demographic phenomenon and enabling the road network necessary to connect such a large, geographically-diverse country together. Meanwhile, massive Acacia and Oil Palm plantations have been developed in areas of cleared forest to provide food for the growing population and vital export commodities crucial in sustaining Indonesian economic growth.

Early Dutch tobacco plantation on Sumatra (circa 1900). At the turn of the 20th century, some 84% of Indonesia land was covered in forest
Early Dutch tobacco plantation on Sumatra (circa 1900). At the turn of the 20th century, some 84% of Indonesia land was covered in forest

The demographic floundering in Indonesia (despite family planning efforts), coupled with the need to ensure continued economic growth and rising living standards, means that deforestation is likely to persist. Thanks to illegal logging in national parks, often with the complicity of corrupt local officials, species like the Sumatran Tiger could soon follow its Bali and Javan cousins into extinction; the Javan Rhino is in a similarly precarious position.

As we have seen in the Amazon, monumental conservation efforts are required to stave off the worst ravages of modernisation. It will take a radical change in outlook and approach for Indonesia to achieve this feat.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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