The end of a 14-month moratorium on logging comes amid a spate of macabre maulings of Indonesians by animals struggling to survive in their dwindling habitats. On Wednesday, an 83-year-old man on the island of Sumatra was killed after 30 wild elephants stampeded through his village. The death followed a month of elephants running amok in the village, which is close to a trail commonly used by the threatened species. “The elephant routes are almost gone,” said Johny Mundung, the co-ordinator for the Indonesian environmental group Wahli in the Sumatran province of Riau, where the attack occurred.
Four people have died in Sumatra in the past 3½ months due to wild elephant attacks. However 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 destroyed, the trees logged and, in some cases, replaced with palm oil and pulp plantations. All the deaths caused by elephants and tigers occurred in areas where such plantations abound.
Indonesia’s deforestation has earned it the title of the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China and the United States. 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 greenhouse gases spewed out by a rapidly industrialising world.
In 2007, the Indonesian Government announced 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 issue permits for the destruction of another 2 million hectares of peatlands. “SBY’s goal is now mission impossible,” said Yuyun Adradi, a Greenpeace forests campaigner.
A sharp fall in palm oil prices has led to calls from the industry, many of them substantial political donors, for more land concessions. 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 the logging will lead to a huge increase in carbon emissions, as much as 10 times the annual emissions from fossil fuel consumption in Indonesia.
The logging of marshy peatlands creates a 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. The third climate change calamity is caused when the denuded and drained peatlands catch fire during the dry season. Peat is highly combustible and the fires typically burn underground and cannot be doused with traditional firefighting methods, creating smoky haze that drifts across the archipelago and neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia for months.