Developed by the World Resources Institute, the University of Maryland, Google, the UN Environment Program and other partners, the mapping application launched this week (20 February) in Washington DC, combines satellite technology, open data and crowdsourcing to guarantee access to “timely and reliable information” about forests and to “empower people everywhere to better manage forests.”
However, in Indonesia, where the rate of forest cover loss is reported to be the fastest in the world, questions were raised on the accuracy of data.
Greenomics Indonesia, an environmental NGO, says the research study used to build the platform is inaccurate and misleading since it scientifically categorised palm oil plantations and concession areas under company-granted industrial forest permits as “forest cover gain.”
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, which is being targeted as among the main causes of large-scale deforestation in that country and globally. Demand for palm oil is booming because of its diverse uses for food products, cosmetics and other consumer commodities, even for biodiesel.
“Thousands of hectares of natural forest have been cleared to give way for vast palm oil plantations in Indonesia. Still, the study classifies this as forest gain,” says Greenomics Indonesia director Elfian Effendi.
“Why don’t they just classify it as plantation expansion? It is quite ridiculous. World-class researchers have made a mistake in interpreting satellite data,” he argues.
But an expert from Bogor Agricultural Institute, Rizaldi Boer, notes that palm oil trees and rubber trees were included in the research study because they are part of the gross number of trees. Had the study used the same definition of forest as the Indonesian government, which excludes plantations and industrial forest permit areas, the total area of primary forests would have been the same.
For his part, Matthew Hansen, team leader of the University of Maryland-based research study, explains that the mapping tool on global forest change does not differentiate between forests and plantations.
“The main point of the study is about the biophysical presence or absence of tree cover. On top of these are disturbances to the trees such as forest fire, logging or land clearing,” Hansen tells SciDev.Net.
“So here you will see the big D – deforestation and land degradation – in REDD,” he notes, referring to the UN programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.
On 7 February in Jakarta, Hansen presented new features of the global forest change map to 70 Indonesian scientists and government officials.
“We have new findings that show 38 per cent of all forest losses in Indonesia are inside primary forests. A lot of the wetlands in Indonesia are being cleared compared to the uplands,” he says.
In their study published in November 2013, Hansen’s research team reported a global loss of 2.3 million square kilometres of forest and a gain of 800,000 square kilometres of new forest from 2000 to 2012. Although Brazil’s environmental programmes managed to cut the Amazon’s deforestation rate from 40,000 square kilometres to 20,000 square kilometres per year, this was offset by the increasing deforestation in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bolivia, Paraguay and Zambia.
On Indonesia, Hansen said it is the “bookend to Brazil” because Indonesia has the biggest increase in forest cover loss — more than doubling its annual loss during the study period to nearly 20,000 square kilometres in 2011-2012.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.