Chinese Whispers in Indonesian Conservation

September 25th, 2010

You can call me a scientific nit picker, but I am confused.

For almost a decade conservationists have been trying to give a more comprehensive picture about deforestation. Rather than talking about hectares, square kilometers or acres lost, the popular measure of “football fields” is increasingly used.

I guess the thinking is that Joe Public doesn’t quite get the standard scientific units of measurements. But as he sits in front on his tv to watch men run up and down grassy fields, he will have some picture of the size of a football field.

Deforestation as measured by numbers of football fields , however, acts like Chinese whispers. I did a quick Google search on “deforestation”, “football field”, and “Indonesia” and found the following conflicting statements:

According to the English Football Association, the length of a full-size soccer pitch must be between 90 and 120 meters and the width between 45 and 90 meters, i.e. between 0.4 and 1.08 ha. An American football pitch measures about 0.45 ha, without the end zone.

Based on the above statements and the variation in the size of football fields, deforestation rates in Indonesia vary from 0.2 ha per hour at the lowest to 648 ha per hour at the highest. Or in the more usual measurements, between 1752 and 5.7 million ha per year. That’s a 3,000-fold difference! And at least one source ascribes most of that deforestation to oil palm.

Deforestation rates are notoriously difficult to get hold of. They are obscured by definition of what is forest, methods of detection, and willingness of governments to report to the FAO who keep the official data. More transparency and more frequent information on deforestation is badly needed to see whether we are making any progress towards reducing it. I doubt, however, that football field estimates make things any clearer.

I don’t know who started measuring deforestation in football fields lost. The obvious idea was to drive home the severity of deforestation, especially in the tropics. But I really don’t think the present confusing reporting is making things any clearer.

Obviously as conservationists we are also opening ourselves up to the criticism that we can’t even get our facts right. Ultimately I believe it puts us in a weaker position to influence the forest conservation agenda.

Let’s stick to the deforestation facts. And let’s stick to measures that everyone understands and that are unambiguous.

Or if you do need to simplify, use something that is clear. For example, when you talk to a US audience, tell them that Indonesia is losing a forest area the size of New Hampshire every year, which will work a lot better than saying that a forest area the size of 190 king size mattresses is being lost every second. Anyway, you get the point.