Indonesia’s 2019 wildfire destruction far worse than official estimate – study

A motorcyclist rides on a road through land destroyed by forest fires near Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan province, Indonesia, September 29, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

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  • Earth scorched in 2019, fires were recorded almost twice officially – study
  • Study shows deforestation rate slows in 2017-2020
  • Indonesia says it is committed to reducing deforestation
  • Environmental groups call for more transparency

SINGAPORE, Jan 14 (Reuters) – The devastating wildfires in Indonesia in 2019 burned almost twice as much land as officially reported, according to a recent study, raising concerns among environmental activists over transparency government on deforestation.

The Southeast Asian country, which has the largest rainforests outside the Amazon and Congo, has razed vast tracts of land to accommodate its palm, pulp and paper industries .

The 2019 fires blanketed Indonesia and the region in haze, causing 900,000 people to report respiratory illnesses and costing $5.2 billion in losses, according to the World Bank.

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The study published in the journal Earth System Science Data in November found that 3.1 million hectares (7.7 million acres) were burned in 2019 – an area larger than Belgium – compared to 1.6 million hectares reported by the Ministry of Forests.

“We observed a larger damaged area than official estimates because breakthrough technology allowed us to detect more small burns and more very large ones,” one of the study’s authors, David Gaveau, told Reuters.

“We used better satellite data, machine learning and supercomputers from Google.”

Nevertheless, consistent with official data, the study found that the rate of deforestation in Indonesia had declined over the past four years, although its calculations differed, Gaveau said.

When Gaveau first reported his findings in December 2019, Indonesian authorities said his research was not credible because it had not been peer reviewed at the time.

Gaveau said he had sent the latest peer-reviewed findings to the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

A forest fire official at the ministry did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

The ministry has previously said it is committed to reducing deforestation although it cannot stop it completely as land clearing is necessary for development.

Instead, it aims to achieve a “net carbon sink” in its forestry sector by 2030, meaning the sector will absorb more greenhouse gas emissions than it emits.

Wahyu Perdana, an activist with environmental rights group WALHI, urged the government to ensure transparency in deforestation data.

“Low transparency will impact…law enforcement,” Perdana said. “Weak forest fire law enforcement will make it difficult to suppress deforestation.”

Greenpeace Indonesia forest activist Asep Komarudin also said transparency was important to avoid potential problems with international money transfers for forest nations under global climate agreements.

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Reporting by Fathin Ungku Editing by Ed Davies and Simon Cameron-Moore

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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