Rate and Causes of Deforestation in Indonesia:
Towards a Resolution of the Ambiguities

William D. Sunderlin and Ida Aju Pradnja Resosudarmo

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[Chapter 1]

[Chapter 2]
The problem of imprecise and conflicting definitions

[Chapter 3]

[Chapter 4]
Logging and the timber industry

[Chapter 5]
Estates and plantations

[Chapter 6]
Guidelines for the determination of rates and causes

[Chapter 7]
Summary and conclusion

[Chapter 8]



[Table 1]
Change over time in views on causes of deforestation in Indonesia

[Table 2]
Estimates of annual deforestation in Indonesia (thousands of ha)

[Table 3]
Population density and forest cover by Province in Indonesia (1982) (ranked in ascending order of population density)


Estimates of the area of annual average deforestation in Indonesia vary widely, ranging from a low of 263,000 ha (TAG 1991) to a high of 2,400,000 ha (Hasanuddin 1996) (see Table 2). Several authors have observed that estimates of deforestation in Indonesia are undermined by unclear or diverging uses of the term "deforestation". Among the most vocal on this subject are Dick (1991), Soemarwoto (1992), Saharjo (1994) and Angelsen (1995).[5] Lack of specificity in use of the term "deforestation" facilitates selective interpretation of data and therefore severely distorts the issue. As we will see below, in the worst case, one person's "deforestation" can be another's "reforestation". A related problem is how one conceptualises or defines the "agent" of deforestation. Following are some of the main difficulties in use of the terms "deforestation" and "agent of deforestation".

(1) Does "deforestation" refer to just permanent, or both permanent and temporary removal of forest cover? Two of the key studies (FAO 1990; World Bank 1990) implicitly assume that both permanent and temporary removal of forest cover constitute deforestation. In so doing, they include as "deforestation" large areas of shifting cultivation that will eventually return to secondary forest status. This definition, therefore, greatly enlarges both the area assumed to be deforested and the role of shifting cultivation in overall deforestation.

(2) Does "deforestation" refer to the loss of forest cover for all kinds of uses, or does it refer to the loss of forest cover that will never again regenerate for timber production? An implicit definition of deforestation in World Bank 1990 (p.3) is based on the latter view.

(3) Does "deforestation" refer to the removal of forest cover alone, or does it refer as well to the loss of various kinds of forest attributes, such as density, structure and species composition? Saharjo (1994) points out the area deforested is smaller in the former case, larger in the latter. Forest degradation is an important issue with respect to assessing the comparative environmental effects of smallholder agriculture and logging. Under traditional shifting cultivation, for example, cultivated land is often said to be "deforested", but may return to forest cover at a later date. Logged-over forests are often not considered "deforested", inasmuch as there are still many standing trees after selective felling, however in some cases there may have been considerable loss of various environmental functions of the forest.

(4) Is the "agent of deforestation" the one that removes the forest cover, or the one that subsequently prevents the regrowth of forest cover? If one assumes the former, then logging companies are assigned a larger role in deforestation than otherwise might be the case. If one assumes the latter, then agricultural smallholders, who sometimes colonise land that has been first opened up through logging, are assigned a larger role than might otherwise be the case. Some observers have pointed out that it may be practically impossible to disaggregate the causal role of different agents operating in the same locality (e.g., World Bank 1990: xx; Ahmad 1995: 3).

(5) Is the "agent of deforestation" most appropriately defined in terms of the ultimate designated use of cleared forest land, rather than by the actions and intentions of those who actually clear the forest? Barbier et al. (1993: 7) suggest such a line of reasoning, saying that much deforestation in Indonesia occurs on land intended for conversion to agriculture, so a causal role must be assigned to the growth of agriculture.

A related problem is the varied perspectives of observers on the principal value of forests, as in the case of substitution of natural forests by forest plantations. [6] Commentators representing government or industry might view this trend favourably, inasmuch as timber yields from plantations can be greater per hectare than in natural forests. Commentators representing environmental and forest community interests view the situation quite differently, since this process may harm biodiversity and the interests of forest communities. From the point of view of environmentalists, creation of plantations can be seen as "deforestation", whereas from the point of view of government and industry it might be seen as "reforestation". This concern is captured succinctly in the title of the WALHI/YLBH (1992) document Mistaking Plantations for Indonesia's Tropical Forests. These interest-based positions with respect to different types of forests can lead to different interpretations of the same primary data.

It should be clear that more precise use of key terms and concepts is a pre-condition for raising the quality of research on forest cover change. In section 6, we urge application of a new methodology for analysing forest cover change developed by FAO (1996). This methodology includes precise definitions for "forest" and "deforestation" which - if applied systematically - can help avoid confusion and selective interpretation of forest cover data.

[5] Sayer and Whitmore (1991) and Grainger (1993) have noted the difficulty of making international comparisons of estimates of forest cover loss because of varying definitions of key terms and concepts.

[6] Durand (1994: 337) notes that different ways of defining primary forest yield significantly different assessments of how much such forests remain in Indonesia.