While the burning of fossil fuels is considered the main contribution to global warming from humans, tropical deforestation also plays a significant role. Climate experts say it may account for 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental activists say to reduce global warming the international community should pay countries such as Indonesia, Brazil and Congo to protect tropical forests. VOA's Brian Padden traveled with Greenpeace activists to Riau Province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra to look at how deforestation threatens the world.
Burning forests to clear land for agriculture has long been a lucrative endeavor in Indonesia. Agus Nata is a palm oil farmer who owns eight hectares of land. Years ago he cut down and sold any trees of value on his land. Then he burned what was left.
He says burning the fields is the cheapest and easiest way to clear the land. The global market for the palm fruit he now produces, which can be used to make biofuels, is growing. Large agricultural companies are also clearing and burning vast areas of forest. In the past 50 years, more than 72 million hectares of Indonesia's forest have been destroyed.
For some communities in Indonesia, such rapid deforestation threatens their traditional way of life.
Pelli, a fisherman on the Kerumutan river is happy today because he caught a five-kilogram snakehead fish. His family has lived on the river for generations and depends on the forests for wood for his home, his boat, and his nets. He is worried about what would happen if the land near the river were developed.
He says it is dangerous and quite threatening. Where else, he asks, can they find wood to make what they need?
Deforestation also has harmful regional effects. Smoke from large forest fires in Indonesia and Malaysia has reached Singapore and other countries in Southeast Asia.
Clearing forests also removes trees that help absorbe greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, or CO2. Many climate experts say CO2 and other greenhouse gases, most of them released by burning fossil fuels, contribute to global warming.
In Sumatra, the problem is compounded because the ground in the jungle is covered with moist decaying vegetation known as peat. The peat stores vast quantities of the carbon dioxide. Environmental organizations such as Greenpeace say that drying and burning peat releases the CO2 into the atmosphere. Because of deforestation, Indonesia is now the world's third largest greenhouse gas emitter, after the United States and China.
Volunteers from Greenpeace are building a dam in Sumatra to focus on both local and international solutions to the problem. The dam will restore an area of peat-land forest that was damaged by fire. Greenpeace is using the project to encourage Indonesian volunteers like local student Joni Heriadi to become more involved in protecting the local environment.
He says he wants to join Greenpeace because he sees so much destruction of the forests.
Greenpeace also brought international journalists here to see the deforestation firsthand.
Bustar Maitar, an Indonesian Greenpeace leader, says these activities are part of a global campaign to urge rich countries to provide financial incentives to developing countries to stop deforestation.
"One of our demands is to ask the developed countries to at least put money on the table, at least 30 billion euros [$44 billion] to helping countries like Indonesia, who have the forests, to save the forests from deforestation, to solve the climate crisis, what we are facing now," he explained. "Without that we are not confident we can solve the problem of the climate crisis," he said.
The issue will be on the agenda at upcoming global climate talks in Copenhagen. Nations will meet to try to hammer out a deal to reduce emissions both from industrial activity in developed nations and from deforestation in developing nations. One mechanism being considered would allow a polluting industry to pay another business or government to reduce emissions, which could pay countries to leave forests standing.
However, it is not clear an agreement will be reached in Copenhagen, as some developed countries, including the United States, say they want the large developing countries to commit to binding emission cuts, which nations such as China have rejected.
Maitar says without international assistance little can be done to stop developers from burning the forests for short-term profit and long-term global environmental damage.