Sunday, June 17, 2007

The big swap: pristine forest for palm oil plantation

Rully Syumanda

Natural forest in Indonesia has reached crisis point, Made Indonesia probably the highest rate deforestation in the world. Illegal logging is often pinpointed as the major problem, but in Indonesia the main cause is in fact the spread of large-scale palm oil plantations.

Oil palm has already been extended into High Conservation Value Forest areas, several in water catchment zones and others in forested peat swamps, where the peat may extend to a depth of more than 3 metres (meaning that the area is supposed to be designated as a protected area). Peat swamps affected include Riau and Jambi in Sumatra and areas in Kalimantan. Large-scale land clearing for plantations is also a major cause of the peat-land forest fires that cause most of Indonesia’s smoke haze pollution.

Forest conversion in water catchment areas also causes extensive damage. Where forests have been clear cut, soil and sand is carried down to rivers by the rain, creating sediments that make the rivers increasingly shallow. This in turn leads to flooding, particularly during periods of heavy rain. For example, flooding in Riau in 2003 caused damage amounting to about US$76 million (the equivalent of 64% of Riau’s Annual Budget in 2002 ), and flooding in Jambi province in 2004 caused damage totaling US$22 million) Revenue from palm oil plantations cannot and does not make up for the devastating impacts that these floods have on peoples homes and crops.

Removing peat swamps also causes irreversible environmental damage. The large quantities of water caught up in the peat cannot be retained or trapped once the swamps are opened up. Its carbon storage functions are also lost and millions of cubic meters of carbon released into the air . Furthermore, as has happened in Riau, sea water can no long be kept at bay and it invades well water. In the Inderagiri Hilir Regency in Riau, for example, hundreds of households could no longer use their wells after they became polluted with sea water .

Converting forest to palm oil plantations also requires changing the soil’s PH value (its acidity or alkalinity). The cheapest way to do this is by burning the forest. Between 2000 and 2005, more than 200 oil palm companies may have burned forests as part of their concessions.

The palm oil business in Indonesia is also rife with land tenure conflicts, and is frequently associated with the use of military and police force. In 2004, for example, a private security company from America, SHIELD, murdered three people in East Tambusai Vilage, Rokan Hulu regency, Riau Province, following a conflict between the business PT Surya Dumai and people demanding their land back .

Between 1988 and 2002, 479 people were reported as victims of torture and tens of people were killed in conflicts over land. For many living in areas where plantation companies are granted concessions the outlooks are bleak: lower salaries and no rights. Palm oil plantations may create thousand of jobs and local and national economic revenue, but they can also tip communities into poverty.

Palm oil is used in a wide variety of products and is also increasingly used as a biofuel. But relying on palm oil so heavily will force all of us to convert more natural forest to palm oil plantation. Population growth means that more and more fuel will be required yet less and less land will be available. There’s not enough land to feed our energy habit and it’s ridiculous to say that palm oil is a sustainable product or fuel.

Draft European plans to use palm oil as a fuel have to be stopped. Such a policy would be a disaster for countries like Indonesia. Europe and others should focus on saving energy and developing truly sustainable energy sources, instead of turning to the people and remaining forests of Kalimantan and Sumatra to solve their energy problems for them. It’s time the North stopped imposing the consequences of its consumption on the ecology and livelihoods of the South.
It’s time to end this colonialism.

No comments: