Chinese Whispers in Indonesian Conservation

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.

Author: Erik Meijaard

Erik Meijaard is one of Mongabay’s bloggers who joined in September 2010. Erik is a passionate conservation scientist with a critical eye for the both sense and nonsense in conservation management and science. Based on nearly 20 years of in-country experience in Indonesia he has written extensively in both the scientific literature and in popular media on what he thinks is right and wrong about the way we go about conservation. This included a popular blog which he wrote for The Nature Conservancy. His experience in developing countries has shaped his thinking about the need to reconcile conservation with the development aspirations that many developing countries have. Ignoring those aspirations is not only arrogant or even verging on the neo-colonial, but it will ultimately work against us in achieving conservation objectives. From his home office in Jakarta, Erik runs the forest branch of PNC International, a small independent conservation consultancy. Erik has an academic background in tropical ecology and a PhD in biological anthropology. He has worked for several international NGOs and research organizations, including WWF-Netherlands and the Center for International Forestry Research. From 2004 to 2009, he worked for the Nature Conservancy Indonesia's forest program as its senior scientist and program manager. At the same time he was also closely involved with developing and implementing a USAID-funded orangutan conservation programs, first as chief of party, later as Kalimantan coordinator and conservation strategy planner. Erik has a wealth of experience working with the private sector, including timber and mining concessions, as well as plantations. His editorial experience with two newsletters, frequent publications in public and scientific fora, and media experience indicate Erik's strength as an effective communicator on forest conservation and management issues. Erik’s family accuse him of being obsessed with his laptop – they are right. Ultimately Erik will get out of this though, cut himself off from the internet, lean back in his rocking chair, and sip cold beer, preferably while looking over a nice sea or landscape. But that point hasn’t come yet, so keep an eye out for his blogs, which vary from the plain rambling to the highly insightful, but always aim to be constructive in the conservation debate – and hopefully bring a smile to people’s faces. After all, unless we can enjoy this world we live in, why bother conserving it? [Editor's note: Erik was interviewed at Indonesian people-not international donors or orangutan conservationists-will determine the ultimate fate of Indonesia's forests in 2010]

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