Sunday, July 17, 2011

Deforestation in Sarawak and Climate Change

Caption: Comparison of absolute forest area and deforestation rate trends for peat swamp forest (top) and all forest in Sarawak including peat swamp forest (bottom) during 2005-2010. (Sarvision 2011)

A report by Wetlands International in February reported on the Borneo Orangutan Survival website reports "Two thirds of Sarawak's peatlands were until recently covered by thick, biodiversity-rich rainforest. Between 2005-2010 almost 353,000 hectare of the one million hectare peatswamp forests were opened up at high speed; largely for palm oil production. In just 5 years time, almost 10% of all Sarawak's forests and 33% of the peatswamp forests have been cleared. Of this, 65% was for conversion to palm oil production. (2011; Sarvision, Impact of oil palm plantations on peatland conversion in Sarawak 2005-2010.)

Marcel Silvius from Wetlands International said: "As the timber resource has been depleted the timber companies are now engaging in the oil palm business, completing the annihilation of Sarawak's peat swamp forests."

Tropical deforestation is a major source of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. The Wetlands International report says:

Malaysia used to have about 2.5 million ha of peatland forests. Conversion and drainage of these natural carbon stores causes a rapid decomposition and subsidence of the organic soil leading to huge carbon dioxide emissions, lasting for decades. Very cautious and conservative estimates put greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil plantations on peat at 40 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year. Using this very conservative estimation, the 510,000 ha of peatlands in Malaysia drained for palm oil production thus cause the release of some 20 million tonnes/CO2 annually. However, twice this amount is more likely.

South East Asian forests store at least 42 000 Million metric tonnes (Mt) of soil carbon. According to a scientific paper published July 2009 - Current and future CO2 emissions from drained peatlands in Southeast Asia - of the 27.1Million hectares (Mha) of peatland in Southeast Asia, 12.9 Mha had been deforested and mostly drained by 2006. The extent of carbon emissions released by destruction of these peatlands "makes conservation of remaining forested tropical peatlands, and rehabilitation of degraded ones, a significant opportunity for carbon emission reductions. The concentrated nature of these emissions, they are produced on less than 0.1% of the global land area, makes them potentially easier to manage than many other emissions caused by multiple types of land conversion. Improved water management planning for whole hydrological units (peat domes) is the basis for conservation of peat resources."

The report concludes "A post-Kyoto treaty after 2012 which includes carbon credits from Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) is one of the most important opportunities for tropical peatlands to be valued for their environmental importance. This development will largely determine the opportunities for improved management, rehabilitation and conservation, and consequently the magnitude of ghg emissions in the future."

Indigenous rights of the Penan people are also being ignored. According to Survival International the Sarawak state government of Taib Mahmud does not recognize the rights of the Penan indigenous people to their land. Since the 1970s, it has backed large-scale commercial logging on tribal land across Sarawak, but not without blockades and resistance from the Penan from 1987 to 1993 which were subdued by riot police.

Penan continue to be displaced from their ancestral forests and lands to make way for palm oil plantations and a series of twelve new hydroelectric dams that will flood Penan and other indigenous villages. Survival's Director, Stephen Corry, said in a June 2011 media release, "Even by the appalling standards of the Sarawak government, which has treated the Penan with contempt for decades, this is breathtakingly cynical. Not only is it forcing more than 1,000 people from the forests they have lived in for generations, it has sold off the area it promised them as a new home, and is allowing it to be cleared for plantations. It looks like the government won't be satisfied until the Penan are reduced to utter poverty and destitution."

Construction of the Murum Dam has started and is due to come on stream next year. The twelve dams are called the 'Sarawak corridor of renewable energy' (SCORE), which will involve oil, timber, aluminium and palm oil enterprises lining the pockets of elite families while continuing to threaten and dispossess the land of Sarawak's tribal people and destroy rainforests.

The deforestation and logging of tropical rainforests will increase CO2 emissions and reduce the substantial carbon sink provided by the forests. New scientific research has found that Forests play a major role as carbon sinks, particularly in the tropics.