Thursday, 5 March 2009

Indonesia flushes target down carbon sink

  • Tom Allard, Jakarta The Age (Australia)
  • March 6, 2009

  • INDONESIA'S Government has approved a big increase in logging of its tropical forests, a decision that could lead to a major jump in carbon emissions and, most likely, cause further deadly attacks on villagers by tigers and elephants.

The end of a 14-month moratorium on logging comes amid maulings of Indonesians from animals that are struggling to survive in their dwindling habitats.

On Wednesday, a man, 83, on the island of Sumatra was killed after 30 elephants stampeded through his village. The death followed a month of elephants running amok in the village, which is close to a traditional trail.

"The elephant routes are almost gone," said Johny Mundung, co-ordinator for the Indonesian environmental group Wahli in the Sumatran province of Riau, where the attack occurred.

While four people have died on the island of Sumatra in the past 3½ months due to elephant attacks, the deaths caused by Sumatran tigers have been even more dramatic. The death by mauling of an illegal logger in Sumatra on Wednesday was the ninth in five weeks.

About half of Sumatra's forests have been cut down, the trees logged and, in some cases, replaced with palm oil and pulp plantations.

All the deaths caused by elephants and tigers were in areas where palm and pulp oil plantations abound.

Indonesia's deforestation has earned it the title of the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China and the US. More than 80 per cent of the emissions are caused by deforestation. Indonesia has destroyed more than 28 million hectares of forest since 1990, much of it on swampy, densely forested peatlands that are the world's most potent carbon sinks, absorbing the greenhouse gases spewed out by a rapidly industrialising world.

In 2007, the Indonesian Government said it would stop the clearing of the peatlands, shortly before Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono pledged to reduce carbon emissions from forests by 50 per cent in 2009 and 95 per cent by 2025.

But last month, Indonesia's Ministry of Agriculture quietly announced it would begin to issue permits for the destruction of another 2 million hectares of peatlands for plantations of palm oil, a product found in many foods and cosmetics, and a growing source of biofuels.

A sharp fall in palm oil prices has brought calls from the industry, many members of which are substantial political donors, for more land concessions to expand production. Officials from the Agriculture Ministry said the new permits would be carefully managed and represented only 8 per cent of the remaining peatlands.

But Greenpeace said that even the logging of that fraction of the peatlands would lead to huge increase in carbon emissions.

The logging of marshy peatlands creates an environmental triple whammy. The cutting down of the forests and draining of the peat destroys the carbon sinks. Then, the oxidisation of the exposed peat — created from thousands of years of organic matter composting — emits more carbon gases.

When the denuded and drained peatlands catch fire during the dry season, they typically burn underground and cannot be doused with traditional firefighting methods.