By PETER GELLING
Published: December 6, 2007
KUALA CENAKU, Indonesia, Dec. 1 — Here on the island of Sumatra, about 1,200 miles from the global climate talks under way on Bali, are some of the world's fastest-disappearing forests.
A look at this vast wasteland of charred stumps and dried-out peat makes the fight to save Indonesia's forests seem nearly impossible.
"What can we possibly do to stop this?" said Pak Helman, 28, a villager here in Riau Province, surveying the scene from his leaking wooden longboat. "I feel lost. I feel abandoned."
In recent years, dozens of pulp and paper companies have descended on Riau, which is roughly the size of Switzerland, snatching up generous government concessions to log and establish palm oil plantations. The results have caused villagers to feel panic.
Only five years ago, Mr. Helman said, he earned nearly $100 a week catching shrimp. Now, he said, logging has poisoned the rivers snaking through the heart of Riau, and he is lucky to find enough shrimp to earn $5 a month.
Responding to global demand for palm oil, which is used in cooking and cosmetics and, lately, in an increasingly popular biodiesel, companies have been claiming any land they can.
Fortunately, from Mr. Helman's point of view, the issue of Riau's disappearing forests has become a global one. He is now a volunteer for Greenpeace, which has established a camp in his village to monitor what it calls an impending Indonesian "carbon bomb."
Deforestation, during which carbon stored in trees is released into the atmosphere, now accounts for 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, according to scientists. And Indonesia releases more carbon dioxide through deforestation than any other country.
Within Indonesia, the situation is most critical in Riau. In the past 10 years, nearly 60 percent of the province's forests have been logged, burned and pulped, according to Jikalahari, a local environmental group.
The rate of this deforestation is rising as oil prices reach new highs, leading more industries to turn to biodiesel made from palm oil, which, in theory, is earth-friendly. But its use is causing more harm than good, environmental groups say, because companies slash and burn huge swaths of trees to make way for palm oil plantations.
Even more significant, the burning and drying of Riau's carbon-rich peatlands, also to make way for palm oil plantations, releases about 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year, according to Greenpeace officials.
But it is also in Riau that a new global strategy for conserving forests in developing countries might begin. A small area of Riau's remaining forest will become a test case if an international carbon-trading plan called REDD is adopted.
REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, is to be one of the central topics of discussion at the Bali conference. Essentially, it would involve payments by wealthy countries to developing countries for every hectare of forest they do not cut down.
Indonesia, caught between its own financial interest in the palm oil industry and the growing international demands for conservation, has been promoting the carbon-trading plan for months.