Trees in Indonesia are disappearing at twice the rate reported by the nation's government, according to a new analysis of deforestation rates. The data also suggests that the nation's 2011 regulations to halt deforestation were largely ineffective, the study authors say.

Published yesterday in the journal Nature Climate Change, the study reinforces earlier work and also finds that since much of the nation's easy-to-access lowland forests have already been exploited, developers are increasingly turning to its carbon-rich wetlands.

Indonesia ranks among the world's top greenhouse gas emitting nations due to rapid deforestation. While a study released in Science earlier this month found that Brazil has slowed the rate of forest loss in the Amazon by 70 percent over the last decade, Indonesia's forests are disappearing rapidly, and the country has now replaced Brazil as the world's No. 1 deforester.

Between 2000 and 2012, the study found, Indonesia lost roughly 15 million acres of its primary forest cover. Deforestation increased by close to 118,000 acres each year during that period, exceeding rates in any other tropical country.

In 2012, more than 2 million acres of primary forest were cleared, the report found. The Indonesian government, meanwhile, reported to the United Nations that its annual deforestation rate between 2009 and 2011 was 1 million acres per year.

The new paper corrects for methods used in another previous study, published in Science in November 2013. That analysis was the first to note a disparity between deforestation rates reported by the Indonesian government and satellite data.

The Science study calculated deforestation rates based on loss of tree cover but included declines occurring in commercial forests such as pulp plantations and oil palm estates. Following objections by Indonesian authorities and other researchers, the new analysis quantified losses only from primary forests and found that deforestation rates still far exceeded official reports.

Green groups opposed to palm oil and pulp and paper development in Indonesia, major drivers of tropical forest loss there, welcomed the study as further evidence that the government's anti-deforestation policies are ineffective.

"It lends credibility to high estimates of deforestation that can be used in advocacy and negotiations," said Nirmal Bhagabati, senior program officer for forests at the World Wildlife Fund.

As other lands are used up, developers turn to wetlands
As developers exhausted many acres of Indonesia's dry land, use of wetlands for farming intensified during the study period. On the island of Sumatra, for example, 3.8 million acres of wetland forests was lost between 2000 and 2012, while deforestation in lowland forests reached 3 million acres.

Deforestation in wetlands is also increasing faster than in dry-land forests, the report notes. This, it states, "possibly [reflects] a near-exhaustion of easily accessible lowland forests."

According to study co-author Fred Stolle, program manager for the World Resources Institute's Forest Landscape Objective, developers would prefer for their plantations to be on dry land. However, draining carbon-rich peatlands is cheap when other options become scarce.

"Draining is relatively easy, but it's of course enormously devastating carbon emissions-wise and biodiversity-wise," Stolle said.

Indonesia has made an international commitment to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2020. According to Stolle, all that is needed to achieve this reduction is for companies to halt draining and development of peatlands.

Tropical forest advocate Glenn Hurowitz, a managing director at Climate Advisers, said the finding that developers are increasingly turning to wetland rainforests is consistent with what he's observed during his visits to Indonesia.

"Tropical rainforests are one of the world's richest carbon sinks, and peatlands are many times more powerful carbon sinks," Hurowitz said. "It's the height of insanity, desperation or greed to destroy a peatland rainforest."

In addition to Indonesia's emissions reduction commitment and deforestation moratorium, major palm oil companies have taken steps to slow this trend. Last December, for example, Wilmar International Ltd. agreed to halt deforestation on its own plantations and also on lands owned by its suppliers (ClimateWire, Dec. 10, 2013).

In April, Nirarta Samadhi, Indonesia's deputy head for the President's Delivery Unit on Development Monitoring and Oversight on Forest Monitoring, told Al Jazeera, "Almost three years into the moratorium on new forestry licenses, we have achieved quite a bit."

Samadhi said Indonesia's OneMap Initiative is set for completion this month and is intended to create a single reference point for land ownership nationwide. The nation has also worked with the United States to establish the Indonesian Climate Change Center to specifically address issues like peatland draining by funding research intended to inform better forestry policy.

But American tropical forestry advocates and researchers maintain that the nation has a long way to go, arguing that the new satellite data show that Indonesia's current regulations have gone largely unenforced.

"Indonesia has not bad policies on forestry ... to follow up, the implementation and the law enforcement is more difficult," Stolle said.

But by following Brazil's example, Stolle said, it is possible for Indonesia to reverse the trend: "Yes, they can do it, they just have to prove it."

Indonesia gears up for a bad fire season
The study comes as Indonesia faces an especially bad year for forest fires due to El Niño, which is set to make the region's dry season even drier and push the nation's carbon emissions higher.

Fires used to clear forested lands have long been an issue in Indonesia, even though companies are prohibited from the practice. Last year, wind-blown smoke from these fires was blamed for the worst air pollution in Singapore in 16 years, drawing widespread attention to the practice (ClimateWire, June 25, 2013).

According to WRI, most of the current fire alerts are concentrated in areas heavily used by the palm oil, pulpwood and logging industries.

Earlier this week, Malaysian news agency Bernama reported that fires in Sumatra have already caused a haze to settle on Malaysia's west coast.

In addition to significant health and economic impacts due to lost working days, "the haze that's caused by these emissions has led to significant disruptions for transportation" in the region, said Bhagabati of WWF.

Stolle said that the Indonesian government has shown itself to be well aware of the fire danger this year and is taking measures to prevent a repeat of last year's record-breaking haze.

But, he said, "Will that mean that they can stop the fires? That has to be seen."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500