El Niño will make Indonesia's deforestation even worse

3 July 2014

It's a world record nobody wants. Not only is Indonesia deforesting faster than any other country, the coming El Niño looks set to take the country's forest loss to record levels.

Satellite data shows Indonesia lost 60,000 square kilometres of primary forest between 2000 and 2012 (Nature Climate Change, doi.org/tgk). The forests are cleared, usually by burning, to make way for oil palm plantations.

With deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon having slowed, Indonesia is the new global centre of tropical forest loss, says Belinda Arunarwati Margono of the University of Maryland at College Park, who analysed the data.

The deforestation has continued despite the Indonesian government declaring a moratorium on further forest clearance in 2011. According to Margono, the fastest ever recorded deforestation in the country happened in the first year after the moratorium.

The El Niño now emerging in the Pacific will only make things worse. During an El Niño, warm water spreads over the eastern Pacific, affecting global weather. This week the UK's Met Office predicted a "weak to moderate" El Niño. But even a weak one can bring drought to Indonesia, making burning easier.

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