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Indonesian Forests More than Just Carbon Sinks

Username By Barrie | May 13th, 2008 | Comments No Comments

In the last five decades, environmental awareness among people has increased worldwide, but the focus of attention has shifted from time to time. In the 1960s and 1970s, pollution got the most attention from the public, especially in Western countries. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, which depicts the effects of pollution on animals and humans, was one of many books inciting environmental awareness among Americans. A few years later, the world was horrified with the news of deadly diseases occurring in Minamata Bay in Japan caused by mercury pollution.

The first United Nations Environmental Conference was held in Stockholm in 1972, in response to environmental problems. The opening day of the conference, June 5, was then made World Environmental Day.

In the 1980s, global warming, acid rain, ozone depletion and biodiversity loss gained wide recognition among scientists, but biodiversity came out the hottest issue in the 1990s. A new field of science, conservation biology, emerged in the 1980s. The renowned biologist from Harvard University, Edward O. Wilson, may be the most prominent person in popularizing biodiversity.

In the American North Pacific, the presence of the spotted owl in old growth forests created a fierce debate between environmental activists, who wanted to preserve the forests, and loggers, who wanted to harvest the timber. The rapid depletion of tropical rain forest in Latin America and Southeast Asia sparked serious worldwide concern over the possible extinction of many species of plants and animals.

While many environmental problems still get the attention of scientists in the first decade of the 21st century, none is more popular today than global warming and climate change. Not only environmental activists, but also politicians have serious concern over this issue.

The main cause of global warming is the increase of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, and deforestation is one source of carbon emissions. With its annual forest fires, Indonesia has been branded the third largest carbon polluter in the world. At the International Conference on Climate held in Bali in December last year, the delegates agreed on a plan to reduce carbon emissions by preventing deforestation and forest degradation.

The emphasis on global warming may shift the view on the role of forest. While a few years ago, the forest was perceived by environmental activists as habitat for wild animals and plants, it is now seen mostly as a carbon sink. A few years ago, the reason for preserving natural forests was to protect biodiversity, now it is to prevent the release of carbon retained in the timber.

This reason is, however, easily challenged by forest companies that want to harvest more timber. While old growth forests do retain a large amount of carbon, they do not absorb much carbon from the atmosphere. As the forest reaches climax stage, it no longer grows. The amount of carbon absorbed from the atmosphere through photosynthesis is equal to that released through respiration. If we just want to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, replacing old forests with new tree plantations is the answer.

When an old forest is harvested, not all the carbon in the wood is released into the atmosphere. Some is still retained in the form of furniture and other wood products. Meanwhile, the new fast growing tree plantations will absorb carbon in larger amounts than old forest. The net rate of carbon absorption slows down as trees reach the mature stage.

If the shift of “biodiversity paradigm” to “carbon sink paradigm” gains more support among foresters, the pressure from forest industries to harvest more timber in natural forests will get stronger.

Forest industries are very willing to promote the controversial idea of Patrick Moore (a former Greenpeace activist who established Greenspirit, a consulting firm on the environment and natural resources) to use more wood because a rise in wood demand would supposedly trigger the market to plant more trees.

Local government officials and parliament members will be very happy to hear this idea because they will have a strong argument to clear-cut natural forests and get a lot of money from the timber. Not only natural forests in production forest areas, but also in conservation forest areas will likely be harvested since the central government has little power to protect it.

These companies just want to get money from the timber and not to make plantations. The government has little power nor political will to punish these companies.

If the forest companies want to make tree plantations in order to get more wood and absorb carbon at the same time, they can do so in degraded forest areas, which account for about 60 million hectares, and in critical land within and outside forest areas, which is 41 million hectares.

They must not convert good-quality natural forest into tree plantations. The remaining natural forest stands in production forest areas should be harvested using the existing selective cutting methods, but with better control.

Natural forest stands in conservation forest areas must be preserved. Climax forest is, of course, not a net carbon absorber. But we must not reduce the function of forests just as a carbon sink. Forests have many functions, one of which is preserving biodiversity. In our rich natural forests exist a great multitude of living things.

They provide a gene bank that will save agricultural crops when pest and disease outbreaks occur, because the wild relatives of our crop species, usually more resistant to pest and diseases, can be used to create new resistant strains.

Our natural forests also contain countless species of plants and animals having pharmaceutical potential that someday will provide medicines to save humans from currently incurable diseases.
Forests serve many functions and not just a carbon sink. Our wonderful species-rich natural forests are definitely much more valuable than the species-poor, man-made forests. We must do our best to protect this precious heritage.

The writer, Wiryono, holds a PhD in ecology from The Ohio State University and is currently serving as head of the Department of Forestry, University of Bengkulu. He can be reached at wiryonogood@yahoo.com.

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