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This is a joint post with Robin Kraft and Dan Hammer.

President Obama is in Indonesia today, and according to Reuters he will make forest conservation a focus of his first official visit to the country. The president is expected to pledge more than $100 million for programs aiming at a 50% reduction of deforestation and forest degradation (e.g. selective logging) by 2014. But we wonder what the benchmark will be for a 50% reduction.

Figure 1 Source: FORMA

A new analysis of NASA satellite data by CGD’s Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA) indicates that Indonesia’s monthly rate of forest clearing has slowed considerably from its peak four years ago (Figure 1). Indeed, our analysis through September 2010 indicates that forest clearing from January to September 2010 has dropped by 49% compared to the same period in 2006 (Table 1, last column). The president will get a lot less than he bargained for if his negotiators ignore such up-to-date information and set program benchmarks too high.

Preliminary reports indicate that the US-sponsored forest conservation program will target specific areas of the country. But such targeting is risky, because it may simply displace deforestation to other areas in Indonesia – or, for that matter, to countries in Southeast Asia that aren’t participating in this program. Such “leakage” is a major concern for conservation programs worldwide, and combating it will require constant updates on deforestation in all tropical forest countries.

Figure 2 Source: FORMA (data)

Figure 3 Source: FORMA (data)

Fortunately, our FORMA project has demonstrated that freely available satellite data now make such pan-tropical coverage possible at low cost. Over the next few months, we will roll out a deforestation “alarm system” that tracks each 1km2 forested tract in the tropics at monthly intervals. Figure 1 and Table 1 show how such information can be used for national tracking. Figures 2 and 3 illustrate how the information can be mobilized for local analysis. Figure 2 displays the rate of forest clearing in each Indonesian sub-province (kabupaten) from 2000 to 2005, with increasing rates shown from yellow to red. Figure 3 identifies areas with accelerating (orange and red) or decelerating (yellow) rates of forest clearing from 2006-10, relative to the first half of the decade.

These FORMA data show a rapidly changing pattern of regional forest clearing, as the overall national rate has declined in recent years. From 2006 to 2010, clearing in Sumatra has intensified northwest and south of the area with the fastest clearing from 2000 to 2005. In Kalimantan, the most intense clearing has shifted from a north-south axis in 2000-5 to the southern and western coastal areas in 2006-10. In eastern Indonesia, recent acceleration is also visible in Sulawesi, Maluku and, to a lesser degree, southern Irian Jaya.

Similar changes may well be occurring among Indonesia’s neighbors. FORMA reports for other Southeast Asian countries will soon show whether forest clearing there is accelerating as it declines in Indonesia, and whether regional patterns are also changing rapidly within those countries.

Timely and rapidly updated information on deforestation can also provide important signals for the broader policy dialogue. Exchange rates, interest rates, agricultural subsidies, infrastructure investments and other policy levers can be major drivers of deforestation, and forest conservation programs will be undermined if economic policies create countervailing incentives. Fortunately, the satellite data mobilized by FORMA can provide the constant feedback that policymakers need to promote sustainable development effectively.