Indonesia's Rainforests and the Climate Crisis

I'm on the ground in Sumatra at Greenpeace"s Climate Defenders Camp. We're here to let world leaders know that this is ground zero for deforestation and if immediate action isn't taken to end the destruction of our rainforests, climate catastrophe is all but assured.

Southeast Asia is the region most exposed to and least prepared for the impacts of climate change, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The ADB warns that the poor -- and especially women -- are the most vulnerable. Approximately 2.2 billion Asians are subsistence farmers; they are already experiencing falling crop yields caused by floods, droughts, erratic rainfall and other climate change impacts.

As well as supporting biodiversity and forest-dwelling communities, forests and their soils are huge carbon stores; they contain nearly 300 billion tones of carbon. That is 40 times more carbon than we currently emit to the atmosphere every year.

Tropical forest destruction accounts for about a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than all the world's trains, planes and cars put together. Therefore, we can only avert a climate crisis if world leaders commit to deep and binding cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions from both fossil fuels and deforestation at the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen.

Globally, more than one million hectares of forest, mostly tropical rainforest, is destroyed every month -- that is an area of forest the size of a football pitch every two seconds.

Destruction and degradation of forests drives climate change in two ways. First, the clearing and burning of forests releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and second, the area of forest that absorbs carbon dioxide is reduced. Their role in regulating the climate is so crucial that if we destroy the last tropical forests, we will likely lose the battle against climate change.


On the ground, it's easy to see the massive destruction that has taken place here. A drive through the Kampar Peninsula reveals hectare after hectare of forest conversion from healthy rainforest to palm oil plantations. There is no sign of animal life or biodiversity -- just row after row of palm. The roads are congested with trucks carrying out palm kernels and the sky is filled with the smoke from hundreds of fires set to clear the land for planting.

Indonesia is a stark example of the need for a robust plan and the provision of international funds to protect tropical forests. According to the latest available figures, it has one of the fastest rates of deforestation. This emits so much CO2 that Indonesia is the third largest climate polluter, after China and the US.

The reason these emissions are so high is twofold. It is caused by the rapid rate of deforestation, and the drainage and burning of the carbon rich peat soil the forests grow on. Deforestation of tropical forests is driven by global demand for products like paper, and palm oil which is used in toothpaste, chocolate and as a biofuel. Since 1950, over 74 million hectares of Indonesia's rainforests have been destroyed completely and others have been seriously degraded.

In a recent report, the Indonesian Government identified the oil palm, pulp and paper, agriculture and logging industries as those primarily responsible for draining peat, for destroying its forests and for causing the country's enormous CO2 emissions. It predicts that, unless action is taken, these emissions will continue to increase. However, the government continues to hand out the concessions that allow these companies to destroy the remaining rainforest.

The Indonesian government has laws to protect some of these carbon-rich peat areas but it fails to enforce the law and even continues to grant permits to companies to destroy them. Under Indonesian law, it is prohibited to develop or clear the forest and to drain any peat if it is deeper than three metres. Over 80% of Kampar's peat is deeper than that, but companies are still granted licences to destroy its forests and peatlands. Only 10% of the peatlands that remain intact are officially "protected". The remaining 90% is under immediate threat, encircled by encroaching pulp and paper companies. They have been allocated for conversion in spite of the law.

International governments give companies that are destroying the rainforest here an incentive to keep up business as usual and drive climate change by allowing imports of paper and palm oil products that come from forest destruction.

With the UN Copenhagen Climate Summit just around the corner, the Heads of State of developed countries must show real leadership and secure a robust climate deal in December that includes a global funding mechanism that will transfer $42 billion annually from industrialized countries to poor forested countries like Indonesia, Congo and Brazil, with the aim of ending deforestation by 2020. Such a deal must deliver substantial emissions reductions from deforestation as well as protect wildlife and respect the rights of forest dwelling people. It must also ensure that money does not end up in the hands of those responsible for forest destruction, like those in the logging industry.

Greenpeace is also calling on Indonesia's President Yudhoyono to commit to zero deforestation by 2015 in Indonesia and to implement an immediate moratorium on the destruction of forests and peatlands to give the climate some breathing space while the forest protection plans in put into action.

President Obama can do his part by coming to Copenhagen to attend the negotiations himself and help push other world leaders to commit to funding solutions to end deforestation. Obama must show leadership now by pushing Congress to pass legislation that will cap our emissions to the levels scientists say is safe and that will help pay for a global funding mechanism for forests. The bills in Congress are too weak and the international talks are veering of course. Now is the time for action from President Obama.