April 13, 2024

In Indonesia, deforestation is intensifying disasters caused by severe weather and climate change

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Roads turned into murky brown rivers, homes were swept away by strong currents and bodies were pulled from mud during deadly floods and mudslides after Torrential rains hit West Sumatra in early March, marking one of the latest deadly natural disasters in Indonesia.

Government officials attributed the flooding to heavy rains, but environmental groups cited the disaster as the latest example of deforestation and environmental degradation intensifying the effects of severe weather across Indonesia.

“This disaster occurred not only due to extreme weather factors, but also due to the ecological crisis,” the Indonesian environmental rights group Indonesian Forum for the Environment wrote in a statement. “If the environment continues to be ignored, we will continue to reap ecological disasters.”

A deforested hill is visible near an area affected by flash flooding in Pesisir Selatan, West Sumatra, Indonesia, Thursday, March 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Sutan Malik Kayo)

A vast tropical archipelago that stretches along the equator, Indonesia is home to the world’s third largest rainforest, with a variety of wildlife and endangered plants, including orangutans, elephants, giant forest flowers and flowering plants. Some don’t live anywhere else.

For generations, forests have also provided livelihoods, food and medicine, while playing a central role in the cultural practices of millions of indigenous residents in Indonesia.

Since 1950, more than 74 million hectares (285,715 square miles) of Indonesian rainforest – an area twice the size of Germany – has been logged, burned or degraded for the development of palm oil, paper and rubber plantations, mining and other commodities, according to Global. Forest Surveillance.

Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil, one of the largest exporters of coal and one of the largest producers of paper pulp. It also exports oil and gas, rubber, tin and other resources. And it also has the world’s largest reserves of nickel – a critical material for electric vehicles, solar panels and other goods needed for the transition to green energy.

Indonesia has consistently ranked as one of the biggest global emitters of plant-warming greenhouse gases, with its emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and peatland fires, according to the Global Carbon Project.

A boy crawls on swept logs into a flood-affected neighborhood in Pesisir Selatan, West Sumatra, Indonesia, Wednesday, March 13, 2024. In Indonesia, environmental groups continue to point to deforestation and environmental degradation that worsen the effects of natural disasters such as floods, landslides, droughts and forest fires.  (AP Photo/Mavendra JR)

A boy crawls on swept logs into a flood-affected neighborhood in Pesisir Selatan, West Sumatra, Indonesia, Wednesday, March 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Mavendra JR)

It is also highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including extreme events such as floods and droughts, long-term changes from rising sea levels, changes in precipitation patterns and rising temperatures, according to the World Bank. In recent decades, the country has already seen the effects of climate change: more intense rains, landslides and floods during the rainy season, and more fires during a longer dry season.

But forests can help play a vital role in reducing the impact of some extreme weather events, said Aida Greenbury, a sustainability expert focused on Indonesia.

Floods can be slowed by trees and vegetation that absorb rainwater and reduce erosion. In the dry season, forests release moisture that helps mitigate the effects of droughts, including fires.

But when forests decline, these benefits also diminish.

Logs that were swept into a village after a flash flood are visible in Pesisir Selatan, West Sumatra, Indonesia, Wednesday, March 13, 2024. In Indonesia, environmental groups continue to point to worsening deforestation and environmental degradation. the effects of natural disasters such as floods, landslides, droughts and forest fires.  (AP Photo/Sutan Malik Kayo)

Logs that were washed into a village after a flood are visible in Pesisir Selatan, West Sumatra, Indonesia, Wednesday, March 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Sutan Malik Kayo)

A 2017 study reported that forest conversion and deforestation expose bare soil to rain, causing soil erosion. Frequent harvesting activities — such as those carried out on palm oil plantations — and the removal of underground vegetation lead to greater soil compaction, causing rain to run off the surface instead of entering groundwater reservoirs. Downstream erosion also increases sediment in rivers, making them shallower and increasing flood risks, according to research.

Following deadly floods in Sumatra in early March, West Sumatra Governor Mahyeldi Ansharullah said there were strong indications of illegal logging around locations affected by floods and landslides. This, along with extreme rainfall, inadequate drainage systems and inadequate housing development contributed to the disaster, he said.

Environmental experts and activists have also pointed to disasters worsening deforestation in other regions of Indonesia: In 2021, environmental activists partially blamed deadly floods in Kalimantan on environmental degradation caused by large-scale mining and palm oil operations. In Papua, deforestation was partly blamed for floods and landslides that killed more than a hundred people in 2019.

A man walks past a log being dragged into a neighborhood affected by flash flooding in Pesisir Selatan, West Sumatra, Indonesia, Sunday, March 10, 2024. In Indonesia, environmental groups continue to point to deforestation and environmental degradation that are worsening effects of natural disasters such as floods, landslides, droughts and forest fires.  (AP Photo/Mavendra JR)

A man walks past a log being dragged into a neighborhood affected by flooding in Pesisir Selatan, West Sumatra, Indonesia, Sunday, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Mavendra JR)

There have been some signs of progress: In 2018, Indonesian President Joko Widodo froze new licenses for palm oil plantations for three years. And the deforestation rate slowed between 2021-2022, according to government data.

But experts warn that deforestation in Indonesia is unlikely to stop anytime soon as the government continues to move forward with new mining and infrastructure projects such as new nickel smelters and cement plants.

“Many land use and land-based investment licenses have already been granted to companies, and many of these areas are already disaster-prone,” said Arie Rompas, a Greenpeace forestry specialist based in Indonesia.

President-elect Prabowo Subiantowho is expected to take office in October, has promised to continue Widodo’s development policy, including large-scale food estates, mining and other infrastructure developments, all linked to deforestation.

Environmental watchdogs also warn that environmental protections in Indonesia are weakening, including the passage of the controversial Omnibus Law, which eliminated an article in the Forest Law relating to the minimum area of ​​forest that must be maintained in development projects.

“The withdrawal of this article makes us very concerned (about deforestation) in the coming years,” said Rompas.

Houses damaged by a flash flood stand in Pesisir Selatan, West Sumatra, Indonesia, Wednesday, March 13, 2024. In Indonesia, environmental groups continue to point to deforestation and environmental degradation that worsen the effects of natural disasters such as floods, landslides, droughts and forest fires.  (AP Photo/Sutan Malik Kayo)

Houses damaged by a flash flood stand in Pesisir Selatan, West Sumatra, Indonesia, Wednesday, March 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Sutan Malik Kayo)

While experts and activists recognize that development is essential for Indonesia’s economy to continue moving forward, they argue that it must be done in a way that considers the environment and incorporates better territorial planning.

“We cannot continue on the same path we have been on,” said sustainability expert Greenbury. “We need to make sure that the soil, the forest land, doesn’t go extinct.”

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The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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