Deforestation, Severe Weather Worsen Disasters in Indonesia

04 April 2024

The heavy rains and flooding in early March destroyed homes and killed people in West Sumatra. It marked the latest deadly natural disaster in Indonesia.

Government officials blamed the floods and landslides on heavy rainfall. But environmental groups say the disaster is the latest example of deforestation and ignoring the environment.

Indonesian Forum for the Environment is an Indonesian environmental rights group. The group said the disaster happened because of extreme weather events and an "ecological crisis." It said in a statement, "If the environment continues to be ignored, then we will continue to reap ecological disasters."

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

Indonesia is home to the world's third-largest rainforest. But since 1950, more than 74 million hectares of rainforest have been destroyed. That is an area twice the size of Germany.

Global Forest Watch is a website that follows world forests in real time. It says Indonesia has been cutting trees and burning forests to clear land for mining and products like palm oil, paper, and rubber.

The Southeast Asian nation is the biggest producer of palm oil. It is one of the largest exporters of coal and a top producer of a product used in paper called pulp. It also exports oil, gas, rubber, and other resources.

Additionally, Indonesia has one of the world's largest reserves of nickel. It is an important metal used in goods needed in green energy products like electric vehicles and solar panels.

The Global Carbon Project is an organization that follows planet-warming greenhouse gas production. It says Indonesia is one of the largest producers of these gases due to the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

The World Bank, an international financial organization, also says Indonesia could greatly see the effects of climate change. Those effects include floods, dry weather, sea level rise, increasing temperatures, and unusual rainfall.

In recent years, the country has already seen the effects of climate change. Those effects include heavier rain during the wet season and more fires during a longer dry season.

Aida Greenbury is a sustainability expert who studies Indonesia. She said forests can help reduce the effects of some extreme weather events.

For example, plants can slow flooding by taking in rainwater and reducing erosion. In the dry season, plants release water which can help deal with the effects of dry weather, including fires. But when forests disappear, so do these helpful effects.

A 2017 study reported that deforestation can cause soil erosion because unprotected soil is removed by rainfall. And harvesting crops can cause soil to become denser. That can cause rain to run over the surface of the ground instead of entering underground reservoirs.

The research also said that erosion can increase the amount of soil in rivers, which can increase flood risks.

After the deadly floods in March, West Sumatra Governor Mahyeldi Ansharullah said there were strong signs of illegal tree-cutting in areas affected by floods and landslides.

Experts and environmental activists have pointed to deforestation worsening disasters in other areas of Indonesia as well. In Papua, deforestation was partly blamed for floods and ground landslides that killed over a hundred people in 2019.

There has been some progress. In 2018, Indonesian President Joko Widodo paused new permits for palm oil plantations for three years. And the rate of deforestation slowed between 2021 and 2022, government data showed.

But experts warn that it is unlikely deforestation in Indonesia will stop anytime soon. They say this as the government continues to move forward with new mining and structural projects.

President-elect Prabowo Subianto is set to take office in October. He has promised to continue Widodo's policy of development. The development policy includes mining and other projects that are all linked to deforestation.

Activists also warn that environmental protections in Indonesia are weakening. That includes a new law that removes an article of the law to protect part of the forests from development.

Arie Rompas is an Indonesia-based forestry expert at Greenpeace, an environment protection organization. He said, "The removal of that article makes us very worried (about deforestation) for the years to come."

I'm Gena Bennett. And I'm Gregory Stachel.

Victoria Milko reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

reap – v. to get (something, such as a reward) as a result of something that you have done

ecology – n. a science that deals with the relationships between groups of living things and their environments

reserve – n. a supply of something that is stored so that it can be used at a later time

fossil fuels – n. a fuel (such as coal, oil, or natural gas) that is formed in the earth from dead plants or animals

sustainability – adj. involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources

erosion – n. the gradual destruction of something by natural forces (such as water, wind, or ice)