Sumatra was once a green, tropical paradise that helped Indonesia earn the nickname “Emerald of the Equator.” No more.

The natural forests that harbored some of the world’s highest biodiversity have been largely replaced by two trees: oil palms and acacia. Palm oil and pulp for paper are flooding global markets from Sumatra, the world’s sixth largest island.

After a large scale natural forest clearance by Sinar Mas Group/Asia Pulp & Paper supplier PT. Artelindo Wiratama in Bukit Tigapuluh, Riau Province, 15 May 2011 © WWF-Indonesia.

In 2004, Eyes on the Forest was born as a coalition of NGOs Jikalahari, Walhi Riau and WWF-Indonesia in Riau, Sumatra, the epicenter of Indonesia’s paper and palm oil industries. At the time, eight forest blocks remained, Bukit Tigapuluh, Giam Siak Kecil, Kampar, Kerumutan, Libo, Rimbang Baling, Senepis and Tesso Nilo, all rapidly being eaten up by the two industries.

Since then, Eyes on the Forest has been investigating loss of forests and deforestation drivers on the ground in Indonesia's top deforestation province, Riau, and the adjacent Jambi province, while analyzing deforestation island-wide through remote sensing. Our own satellite image analysis found that Sumatra's 44 million hectare mainland, covered by 25 million ha (57%) of natural forests in 1985, lost 56% of this forest over 31 years and only 11 million ha (25%) remained in 2016. Sumatra lost forest at an average rate of 0.46 million hectares per year (1.8%) (go to EoF interactive map on Deforestation Drivers for more information).

Deforestation in Riau, Sumatra. The pink areas were deforested between 2000 and 2006/2007, the red areas between 2006/2007 and 2016. The green areas were still forested in 2016. © Eyes on the Forest. Go to EoF interactive map on Deforestation Drivers for more information.

Deforestation has been facilitated by lack of governance and happened often through land grabbing in disregard of tenurial rights. The massive land clearing for development of their plantations and harvesting of natural forest wood is measurably contributing to climate change through emission of forest and peat carbon. The habitats of Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans are heavily disturbed and have been reduced so much that the populations have declined significantly.

In 2016, KKI Warsi joined the coalition to monitor deforestation in Bukit Tigapuluh, a forest landscape stretching from Riau into Jambi province. Eyes on the Forest and KKI Warsi have collaborated for Bukit Tigapuluh conservation in the past and published joint report in 2010. EoF field investigators are constantly on the road, endlessly riding through degraded landscapes to the frontiers of deforestation or following pulpwood and palm fruit to their final destinations, the mills and refineries that process them (go to EoF interactive map for 1. Pulp & paper and 2. Palm oil investigation findings).

After many decades of commodity driven deforestation, key deforestation drivers including Sinar Mas Group's Golden Agri-Resources and Asia Pulp & Paper, Royal Golden Eagle's APRIL and Asian Agri, Wilmar and Musim Mas have recently committed to zero deforestation. Their commitments came too late for Sumatra's forests and high conservation values including the eight forest blocks like Bukit Tigapuluh and Tesso Nilo (for example, read this EoF report on APP and EoF report on illegal palm oil trade). Eyes on the Forest keeps pressuring and monitoring these companies to implement their commitments, not only to stop causing deforestation through their supply chains, but also to start conserving and restoring high conservation value areas to remedy its legacy of deforestation.

Natural forests in the Bukit Tigapuluh landscape continue to be eaten up by plantation developers whether they are protected or not © Eyes on the Forest Jambi, 25 July 2016.