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The Papua region, which makes up the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea, has often been seen as a ‘last frontier’. Rugged, wild and resource-rich, the island holds one of the world’s largest and most intact tropical rainforests, which is a ‘hot-spot’ for a wide range of unique and threatened flora and fauna. Its indigenous communities are famously diverse, too, with over 800 languages spoken and a number of cultures that are still relatively untouched by globalization.

Compared to the rest of Indonesia, the Papua region has little infrastructure and high levels of poverty: currently, 53 percent of the population don’t have access to electricity, and over a quarter of residents live below the poverty line – more than twice the national average of 10.7 percent.

But thanks to recent government efforts to accelerate infrastructure development and boost connectivity in the region, Papua is poised on the brink of some pretty major developments, which could change its long-held reputation for remoteness and inaccessibility – and which may have major impacts for its communities and ecosystems.

   Aerial view of a public road not yet asphalted in a forest in Papua Ulet Ifansasti/Greenpeace

The most well-known of these developments, the Trans-Papua Highway – a 4,330 kilometer (2700 mile) project stretching from Sorong in the north-west to Merauke in the south-east – is billed to be completed by the end of this year. The government aims to roll out full electrification by then, too. Seaports are being built as part of the maritime highway program, and the road network is expanding as industries like oil palm and mining grow their operations in the region.

Now, a new tool developed by scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) aims to help planners, officials, policymakers and civil society members to design projects better – and monitor their impacts – in near-real-time.

The Papua Atlas is an open-access, interactive online map that tracks data such as forest loss; plantation and mine development; and road construction. It uses satellite data collected yearly from 2001-2018, and collected weekly for 2019, as well as government information on land ownership, to create extremely detailed and engaging time-lapse animations that show how land use has changed over time.

The Papua Atlas comes on the heels of a similar tool – the Borneo Atlas – which the team designed for tracking deforestation on that island. But the Papua version boasts extra layers that track road expansion and mine development. According to CIFOR associate and project lead David Gaveau, these layers allow users “to verify, for example, the extent to which development projects like the Trans-Papua highway are impacting forest cover.” Public roads have expanded rapidly after 2010 in Papua province.

Time series (2001–2018) data for main public roads expansion. Documents the annual expansion (in kilometers) of national and provincial roads (including Trans-Papua Highway) in Indonesian New Guinea (a), Papua (b) and West Papua (c) provinces.

Time series (2001–2018) data for main public roads expansion. Documents the annual expansion (in kilometers) of national and provincial roads (including Trans-Papua Highway) in Indonesian New Guinea (a), Papua (b) and West Papua (c) provinces.


Given the area’s remoteness, geography and limited local capacity for geospatial analysis, the tool also provides an accessible means for local authorities “to find out the extent to which roads and other infrastructures have actually progressed,” says Mohammad Agus Salim, Atlas developer.

“They can now verify: did the roads that we’ve paid for get built? They can look at how the landscape has changed: how many roads have been added in the last 18 years – or just last year – connecting which cities, and so on.” For example, the Atlas reveals that public roads have expanded rapidly between 2011 and 2016.

“So it’s a tool, beyond conservation, for spatial planning by local authorities,” he says.

But conservation still remains a central concern of the project – and a hot topic in Papua, where old-growth forests are under threat from oil palm plantation expansion, mining and road expansion. Using the atlas, it’s easy to see how annual forest loss in the region grew steadily from 2001 onward, with a concerning spike in 2015-16 of 103,000 hectares and 80,000 hectares lost, respectively. Meanwhile, the area occupied by industrial plantations – mostly oil palm – has more than quintupled from 50,000 ha in 2000 to 272,000 in 2018.  Oil palm driven deforestation is not the sole cause of forest area loss, says Gaveau. It accounts for 30 percent of total losses between 2001 to 2018. Small-scale agricultural expansion, logging, roads and urban expansion, forest fires, and mining also play a role. “Through our time-lapse visualisations,” says Gaveau, “we also uncovered a little-known natural driver of forest loss: the movement of surface water. Expanding lakes, rivers changing course, overflows and surface run-offs cause significant forest loss.” The authors will expand on drivers of forest loss in a forthcoming publication.

   Aerial view of old-growth forest growing on dry mineral soils in West Papua Ulet Ifansasti/Greenpeace

Hearteningly, the rate of forest loss (and roads expansion) has dropped markedly since 2016, with 2017 and 2018 both tracking much lower rates. According to Gaveau, this is likely due to policies to reduce deforestation and prevent forest fires (such as the 2018 moratorium on oil palm plantation expansion), coupled with a drop in the price of crude palm oil, and international restrictions from emerging no-deforestation markets.

Papua and West Papua land cover change

Time-series (2001-2018) of Papua and West Papua’s land cover change. Documents the annual loss of forest area (a,b,c) and the concomitant annual expansion (d,e,f) of industrial plantations of oil palm and pulpwood (mainly fast-growing Acacia). The black bars in (d,e,f) represent the forested areas cleared and converted to industrial plantations in the same year (or company-driven deforestation)



However, Salim points out, forest loss is still higher than pre-2011 levels. “Expansion still continues,” he says, “and this platform enables you to quickly detect the companies that continue to clear in 2018 and in 2019.”

“As a monitoring tool, this atlas is very useful,” says Sasmita Nugroho of the Directorate of Prevention of Impacts of Environment and Sector Policy. “It can help detect [incidents] quickly, before further steps can be taken. This is a very reliable support tool to add to our existing official system.”

As the region gears up for significant transition, the developers hope that the Atlas will help government, civil society and consumers across the globe to hold would-be developers to the highest of environmental and social standards as they engage with this precious forested frontier.


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Topic(s) :   Deforestation Illegal logging Oil palm