Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – An area of rainforest nearly five times the size of London has been destroyed in the past two decades in Indonesian New Guinea, home to Asia Pacific's largest area of intact old-growth forest, a new study shows.
More swaths of primary rainforest are expected to be cleared, as they stand in areas that have been allocated for oil palm and pulpwood concessions plantations and for the new roads to serve them.
The deforestation threatens many of the unique species in the region and will release huge volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, experts warn.
The Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea, also known as the Papua region, lost 748,640 hectares (1.85 million acres), or about 2% of its old-growth forest, between 2001 and 2019, according to the study published in the journal Biological Conservation.
This was largely due to the growth of plantations, primarily oil palms, and the government's push for infrastructure development in the region, the study found. Oil palm and pulpwood plantations accounted for 208,223 hectares (514,500 acres) of the deforestation there during that period, or 28% of total deforestation.
Prior to 2000, the region was relatively untouched compared to western Indonesia, where forests on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo had been largely cleared to make way for plantations and mines.
At the end of 2000, there were only 50,842 hectares (125,600 acres) of industrial plantations, all oil palms, in Papua.
But as land become increasingly scarce elsewhere in Indonesia, plantation companies started to eye the eastern part of Indonesia, including Papua, which is administratively split into the two provinces of Papua and West Papua.
"There is also mining, while the Indonesian government has invested in ambitious road construction to facilitate land development," David Gaveau, the study's co-author, told Mongabay.
By 2019, there were 281,223 hectares (694,900 acres) of plantations, 95% of them oil palms and the rest pulpwood (typically acacia and eucalyptus, which are cut down and pulped to make paper and related products). This amounts to a more than fivefold increase in total plantation area from 2000 to 2019.
While new plantations can avoid deforestation by planting in landscapes with low or no tree cover, the vast majority (95%) of new industrial plantations in the Papua region during this period were established in forested landscapes.
Infrastructure development is another key driver of deforestation, spearheaded by the government's Trans-Papua Highway project, a web of asphalt cutting thousands of kilometers across the Papua region. The project began in 1979 with the aim of linking all the major urban centers of Papua, and accelerated after 2000.
The government is also building another major highway to support the development of a "food estate" project in the southern district of Merauke, which began in 2012. As of 2019, 3,887 kilometers (2,415 miles) of the Trans-Papua Highway and 336 km (209 mi) of the Merauke food estate highway had been built. This nearly doubles the length of the Trans-Papua Highway from 2000, when it ran 2,333 km (1,450 mi).
This road expansion resulted in the clearing of 115,336 hectares (285,000 acres) of forests, contributing 15% of total deforestation in the Papua region from 2001 to 2019.
According to the study, the Trans-Papua Highway induced deforestation by facilitating activities that pose risks to the region's forests, such as artisanal gold mining in Nabire district, massive expansion of industrial plantations in Merauke and Boven Digoel districts, and the rapid growth of the towns of Kenyam and Dekai.
"Positive correlations between Trans-Papua highway construction and plantations expansion indicate these are linked processes," Gaveau said. "Plantations and roads expanded rapidly after 2011, particularly in Papua province."
Another study, by the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country's biggest green NGO, attributes 22,009 hectares (54,400 acres) of forest loss between 2001 and 2019 to the Trans-Papua Highway. It notes that 22% of this deforestation, an area of 4,906 hectares (12,100 acres), occurred in protected and conservation zones.
"The decrease of forest cover in protected and conservation zones has the implication of the loss of the function of protected areas as the support system of their surrounding ecosystems," the Walhi report says.
It adds that the Trans-Papua Highway dissects or passes nearby at least seven conservation zones, including Lorentz National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A 202-km (126-mi) stretch of the highway that's built through the national park has devastated parts of the protected area, the largest in Southeast Asia and ranked 13thamong more than 173,000 protected areas in the world in terms of the uniqueness and vulnerability of its fauna. Among the species living in the national park is the endangered dingiso tree-kangaroo (Dendrolagus mbaiso).
UNESCO has noted that the threats posed by the Trans-Papua Highway to Lorentz National Park may result in it being designated a World Heritage Site "in danger," and has called for the section of highway inside the park to be shut down.
Walhi executive director Nur Hidayati said the loss of the Papuan forests is a blow to efforts to curb global warming through protecting carbon-rich ecosystems like rainforests.
"Papua is our last frontier of natural forests in Southeast Asia, and it's one of the world heritages because of the big role that these natural forests play in stabilizing the climate and [preserving] biodiversity," she said.
"Amid numerous reports from experts that show that the global climate and biodiversity are at risk, we are worried that the Trans-Papua Highway project will create a ripple effect in opening up areas [for deforestation]."
With new roads being built and many plantation concessions yet to be planted, researchers warn that deforestation will only ramp up.
The study in Biological Conservation notes that the government has allocated 2.62 million hectares (6.47 million acres) of land for the development of industrial plantations, 90% of it for oil palms and the rest for pulpwood. As of 2019, there were 1.95 million hectares (4.82 million acres) of forests still standing in these concessions, representing 74% of the areas earmarked for development.
These large swaths of rainforests are at risk of being cleared, which would threatened the already endangered endemic species in Papua, the researchers say.
"Many unique taxa will be at increased risk of loss as old growth forests are converted," the study says.
And the risk is compounded by the expansion of roads, which the researchers found to be increasing the area of forest at risk of deforestation by 30% compared to a scenario where no new roads were developed since 2000.
"While overall forest losses remain limited, our model shows how new roads will lead to more extensive deforestation," Gaveau said. "Roads can bring benefits to previously remote and neglected communities, but many observers are concerned that big commercial interests dominate over local needs across the region. Roads appear to facilitate access by concession owners to their oil palm or mining concessions and benefit their subsequent extractive industries with consequent harm to forests, to Indigenous peoples and to biodiversity."
The Walhi report also says that when roads are connected to plantations, the scale of deforestation increases. While roads usually lead to a band of forest clearance of up to 100 meters (330 feet) on either side, this footprint expands tenfold when they're connected to industrial plantations, the report says.
Elisabeth Veronika Wambrauw, a professor of engineering and urban planning at Cenderawasih University in Papua who was involved in government discussions of the highway project, says the impact of deforestation in the region could be greater than estimated.
"[The projection of future deforestation] is based on the assumption that there's no other [economic] activities," she said. "Because there's no way that the roads will only affect a radius of 1 kilometer [0.6 mi]. Because when there are roads, there will be economic development."
The Biological Conservation study predicts that an additional 4.5 million hectares (11.12 million acres) of forests could be gone by 2036. This is if the Papua region follows the template of Indonesian Borneo, where rainforests have been razed to make way for rapid expansion of plantations supported by road construction and strong government support.
Under this business-as-usual scenario, the majority of future deforestation – 3.2 million hectares (7.9 million acres) – will take place along roads.
"The relatively pristine forest regions surrounding Kenyam and Dekai, and in Boven [Digoel], Mappi and Merauke regencies comprising many important ancestral lands of indigenous groups are likely to experience significant deforestation if new roads bring the anticipated plantations, mining, food estates and associated influx of labor," the study says.
But if the impact of new roads on the expansion of plantations can be limited, then deforestation can be capped at a total of 932,119 hectares (2.3 million acres) by 2036, with only 195,148 hectares (482,200 acres) of forest loss projected along roads.
"We note that the observed correlation between roads and plantations need not be inevitable," the study says. "While plantation developments require access, with sufficient controls in place new roads need not imply new plantations – though it is unclear if sufficient controls can be mustered in Indonesian New Guinea to permit such developments."
The Walhi report also looks at the risk of future deforestation if the Trans-Papua Highway is completed by connecting the rest of the network. The NGO predicts the completion of the project would lead to the clearing of 12,649 hectares (31,300 acres) in the long run, with 4,772 hectares (11,800 acres) of it in protected and conservation zones.
With Papua's forests at risk of disappearing fast, the new study proposes an alternative development scenario, one that will preserve the rich forest and cultural heritage of the region. It calls for recognizing the rights of local Indigenous peoples to decide what's best for their livelihoods and their environment.
The study points out that some communities in remote regions in Papua have been able to protect large areas of land and forest in a near-pristine state even though government oversight has largely been absent. If degraded forests can be protected from further disruption and conversion, more than half of them will recover, according to the study.
"We favor approaches that recognize that indigenous communities have clear rights to their lands and resources that do not depend on anyone else's permission," the study says. "Ensuring such rights appears consistent with Indonesia's constitution and would be particularly valuable in Indonesian New Guinea."
Adopting this approach would also mean avoiding outdated top-down approaches.
"Listening to, and seeking guidance from, the people impacted by these decisions is crucial for avoiding harmful developments," the study says. "This is a global concern, and we call on the international community to support the Indonesian and Papuan people and their elected governments in making the best decisions."
Gaveau, D. L., Santos, L., Locatelli, B., Salim, M. A., Husnayaen, H., Meijaard, E., ... Sheil, D. (2021). Forest loss in Indonesian New Guinea (2001-2019): Trends, drivers and outlook. Biological Conservation, 261, 109225. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109225
Sheil, D., Boissiere, M., & Beaudoin, G. (2015). Unseen sentinels: Local monitoring and control in conservation's blind spots. Ecology and Society, 20(2). doi:10.5751/es-07625-200239