Oil palm stretches out to the horizon in what was previously primary forest in the PT Bio Inti Agrindo concession, owned by POSCO Daewoo. Photo credit: Mighty.
This edition of Places to Watch examines forest clearing detected between November 9, 2017, and January 31, 2018 in Indonesian Papua, Cameroon and Brazil. Due to occasional cloud cover that can obscure satellite recognition, some loss may have occurred earlier.
Fears that the forests of Indonesian Papua would be the next frontier for oil palm expansion are coming true, according to new satellite imagery analysis. Papua is home to more than a third of Indonesia’s remaining intact forest and experienced unprecedented tree cover loss in 2015 and 2016. GLAD alerts since November show further forest clearing, most likely for oil palm. According to a report by the NGO awasMIFEE!, various Indonesian government agencies have actively promoted large scale-agricultural investment in southern Papua. This has resulted in several new oil palm projects, including investment in the PT Bio Inti Agrindo (PT BIA) concession highlighted in the previous edition of Places to Watch. PT BIA Block II has resulted in more than 20,000 hectares (49,500 acres) of tree cover loss since 2013, most of it in primary forest, with around 2,300 hectares (5,580 acres) affected since November according to GLAD alerts. However, this loss of primary forest has sparked opposition. Norway’s central bank divested from PT BIA owner POSCO Daewoo in 2015 over deforestation concerns in the concession and in June 2017, Mighty Earth sent out a letter warning palm oil buyers that purchases from POSCO Daewoo would violate their No Deforestation and RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) commitments. Over 20 companies including Clorox, Colgate Palmolive, IKEA, L’Oreal, Mars and Unilever, have said they will exclude POSCO Daewoo from their supply chains. In December, Boots, the UK’s largest drugstore retailer, dropped its retail partnership with POSCO Daewoo. In response to this pressure, POSCO Daewoo reportedly instated a temporary moratorium on new clearing, and since the start of 2018, there have been less than 10 hectares (25 acres) of GLAD alerts detected within the concession. GLAD alerts also detected thousands of hectares of recent clearing in Papua within PT Agrinusa Persada Mulia, a subsidiary of the Ganda Group, and PT Central Cipta Persada oil palm concessions.
A rubber plantation company in Cameroon is expanding its activities toward the edge of the Dja Wildlife Reserve UNESCO World Heritage Site. GLAD tree cover loss alerts show nearly 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of tree cover were affected from November 2017 through January 2018, including previously unfragmented intact forest areas. In total, more than 3,000 hectares (7,500 acres), an area about one-fourth the size of Florence, Italy, has been cleared since 2014. The UNESCO forest area is home to endangered species such as chimpanzees, forest elephants, western lowland gorillas, and a nearly extinct leopard species, with neighboring villages home to around 9,500 people. The rubber plantation is owned by Sudcam, a subsidiary of the world’s largest natural rubber company Halcyon Agri Corporation, with a China-based parent company Sinochem International. According to a CIFOR report, Sudcam has come under scrutiny because the plantation expansion involves clearing of “some 40,000 hectares of natural forests” buffering a park with rich biodiversity and protected species. The report notes that while the project has the potential to create needed employment in the areas, many of the communities are not eligible for compensation for loss of customary land to the plantation as Cameroonian expropriation laws do not recognize customary rights. UNESCO authorities and Greenpeace have raised concerns over the project’s impacts on community rights and the Dja Wildlife reserve.
Brazil’s fire season in 2017 was among the most severe since fire detection began in 1999. Analysis suggests that more and more of these fires are happening in natural forest, in areas that normally would only burn very rarely. In the Amazon, where nearly all of these fires are manmade, officials attribute the increase in fires last year to a lack of law enforcement for fire use. Fires are also linked to forest degradation, which makes forests more vulnerable to future fire, and deforestation, which causes local drought that makes fires more likely. GLAD alerts were detected in several forest areas affected by fire in recent months, including in the Xingu, Kayapó, Xikrin do Rio Catete and Arariboia Indigenous Reserves. The fires occurred primarily in August through October of 2017, but were only recently detected by GLAD alerts due to cloud cover and smoke that blocked previous satellite detection.
In Brazil’s Araguaia National Park and neighboring Cantão State Park, GLAD alerts since November detected around 17,500 hectares (43,000 acres) of forest affected by fires. Though disputes remain over the boundaries of Araguaia, park staff estimate that 400,000 hectares, or around 70 percent of the park’s total area (forest and non-forest), burned in the 2017 fire season. According to George Georgiadis, executive director of local NGO Instituto Araguaia, the fires in the area occurred due to a “perfect storm” of conditions – lack of rain, low humidity and strong winds – making fires that would normally be easily suppressed uncontrollable. Araguaia and Cantão sit at the transition between Brazil’s forested Amazon and savannah-like Cerrado biomes, creating a unique ecosystem with biodiversity from both biomes. The 2017 fires mostly burned in the understory and damaged leaves and undergrowth, which will recover quickly. However, the drier forest edges experienced more intense burning, leaving them more vulnerable to repeated burning from which they may not recover. Georgiadis noted that as these fires “eat away at it [the forest edge], the landscape becomes more flammable.”
Government agencies, private companies and local people have the power to stop deforestation before it is too late, and readers like you can help this process by drawing public attention to these areas. We encourage you to share these places, including on social media using #PlacesToWatch. To stay abreast of more developments in the world’s forests, sign up to receive each quarterly edition of Places to Watch straight to your inbox, and read our blog post for more detail on how we spot and select these at-risk areas.