Our small plane had been flying low over Sumatra for three hours, but all we had seen was an industrial landscape of palm and acacia trees stretching 58km in every direction. A haze of blue smoke from newly cleared land drifted eastward over giant plantations. Long drainage canals dug through equatorial swamps dissected the land. The only sign of life was excavators loading trees onto barges to take to pulp mills.
The end is in sight for the great forests of Sumatra and Borneo, and the animals and people who depend on them. Thirty years ago the world’s third and sixth-largest islands were full of tigers, elephants, rhinos, orangutans and exotic birds and plants, but in a frenzy of development they have been trashed in a single generation by global agribusiness, and pulp and paper industries.
Their plantations the world with toilet paper, biofuels and vegetable oil to make everyday foods such as margarine, cream cheese and chocolate, but distraught scientists and environmental groups this week warn that one of the 21st century’s greatest ecological disasters is rapidly unfolding.
Official figures show more than half of Indonesia’s rainforest, the third-largest swath in the world, has been felled in a few years and permission has been granted to convert up to 70 percent of what remains into palm or acacia plantations. The Indonesian government last week renewed a moratorium on the felling of rainforest, but nearly a million hectares are still being cut each year and the last pristine areas, in provinces such as Ache and Papua, are now prime targets for giant logging, palm and mining companies.
The toll on wildlife across an area nearly the size of Europe is vast, say scientists who warn that many of Indonesia’s species could be extinct in the wild within 20 to 30 years. Orangutan numbers are in precipitous decline, only 250 to 400 tigers remain and fewer than 100 rhinos are left in the forests, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said.
Millions of hectares are nominally protected, but the forest is fragmented, national parks are surrounded by plantations, illegal loggers work with impunity and corruption is rife in government.
“This is the fastest, most comprehensive transformation of an entire landscape that has ever taken place anywhere in the world, including the Amazon. If it continues at this rate all that will be left in 20 years is a few fragmented areas of natural forest surrounded by huge man-made plantations. There will be increased floods, fires and droughts, but no animals,” said Yuyun Indradi, political forest campaigner with Greenpeace Southeast Asia in Jakarta.
On Saturday the WWF’s chief Asian tiger expert pleaded with the Indonesian government and the world to stop the growth of palm oil plantations.
“Forest conversion is massive. We urgently need stronger commitment from the government and massive support from the people. We cannot tolerate any further conversion of natural forests,” Sunarto Sunarto said in Jakarta.
Indonesia’s deforestation has been accompanied by rising violence, watchdog groups say. Last year, more than 600 major land conflicts were recorded in the palm plantations. Many turned violent as communities that had lost their traditional forest fought multinational companies and security forces. More than 5,000 human rights abuses were recorded, with 22 deaths and hundreds of injuries.