Wednesday, July 4, 2007

ENVIRONMENT: Clean or Not Thailand Sees Dollars in Palm Oil

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

KRABI, Jul 4 (IPS) - The new governor of this southern province has set his sights on another prize to add to its list of unique features. ‘’We are aiming to be the palm oil capital of Thailand,’’ says Siwa Sirisoawaluk who has been Krabi’s chief administrator for nine months.

He shares his ambition, standing within easy view of a grove of tall palm trees that produce the kind of bio-fuel that is increasingly in demand globally. These trees, locals say, were introduced some three decades ago and are found by roadsides along with the rubber trees that produce another valuable cash crop.

In the main, however, the area that Siwa presides over, is widely known for such attractive features as wide beaches washed by the Andaman Sea, spectacular limestone cliffs and nature trails through tropical forests.

Krabi’s oil palm plantations account for nearly 40 percent of the 320,000 hectares in Thailand where these trees are grown. Bangkok is hoping to have 1.6 million hectares under oil palm cultivation in the next two decades.

Krabi is expected to take the lead in the country’s oil palm expansion drive, adds Siwa. ‘’The supply here is not enough to cater to future demand. We want to remain the province having the largest oil palm plantations in Thailand.’’

It is a vision being advanced by officials at the ministry of energy, too. ‘’You save on oil imports, you help the local farmers growing the oil palm to get a better income and you help to improve the environment,’’ Panich Pongpirodom, director-general of the department of alternative energy development and efficiency, told IPS.

To make this case for the environment, the energy ministry confirmed that the estimated 10,000 petrol stations across the country have to convert by April next year for supplying bio-diesel for which palm oil is pivotal. Major car manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda and Mitsubishi ‘’have accepted our policy’’ to have regular fuel mixed with two percent of ‘’renewable fuel,’’ adds Panich.

Yet, as Thailand looks to the fortunes that palm oil offers other South-east Asian countries that are bigger players in the palm oil trade find themselves caught in an escalating debate.

Countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, two of the world’s leading producers of palm oil, are grappling with the question of exactly how green palm oil is. Environmentalists and grassroots groups are taking on governments in the developed and developing world and the private sector on this score.

Friends of the Earth International (FoEI), a global environmental lobby group, drove home this point Tuesday in a critical report about the devastating impact of palm oil plantations in Indonesia, where the government is planning to convert 20 million more hectares into palm oil plantations.

‘’Wilmar, the world’s biggest trader in palm oil, is illegally logging rainforests, setting forests on fire and violating the rights of local communities in Indonesia,’’ charged the FoEI report.

And it pointed an accusing finger at European countries for contributing to such havoc on the Indonesian environment, since Europe has emerged as ‘’one of the world’s biggest oil importers, with palm oil used as an ingredient in many food products and cosmetics, and increasingly as a bio-fuel.’’

‘’Europe’s growing demand for palm oil is leading to environmental and social devastation,’’ says Rully Syumanda, forest campaigner at FoEI’s Indonesia office.

Wilmar, the multinational company under fire, is based in Singapore. ‘’Wilmar has violated an Indonesian law that requires approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment before palm oil development begins,’’ FoEI researchers reveal after having studied three plantations owned by Wilmar International Ltd in West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo.

Malaysia-based environmentalist Jennifer Mourin is hardly surprised by the intensifying debate over palm oil and its global links. ‘’We cannot have a polluting industry like palm oil go on,’’ says Mourin, deputy executive director of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), a non-governmental group that champions biodiversity across the world.

‘’There are a lot of concerns about the expansion of the palm oil business in this area. Some of the oldest jungles and places of biodiversity are being hit,’’ she said during a telephone interview from Penang. ‘’We are also worried about the acres of land being reduced to a monoculture.’’

Her group, in fact, was part of a broader coalition of 30 groups from across the world that called for a moratorium on the European Union’s ‘’rush for bio-fuels’’ by offering ‘’incentives for agro-fuels and agro-energy from large-scale monocultures.’’ This initiative, launched in the last week of June, warned that ‘’agro-fuel production for EU markets will accelerate climate change, destroy biodiversity and uproot local communities.’’

In Thailand, which is on the periphery of this debate and is far from being an exporter of palm oil, the environmental cost of palm oil production has still to sink in, particularly among the local communities. Those IPS spoke with are drawn by the financial gains they stand to make with expanded plantations.

‘’We can get a steady income from palm oil because we can work throughout the year, unlike rubber tapping which cannot be done during the rainy season,’’ says Wattana Rerngsamut, who also makes a living as a tour guide. ‘’We can work twice a month, every 15 days, with the palm oil tree.’’

The only concern is the investment palm oil groves require. ‘’We have to buy a lot of fertilizer; it is expensive,’’ he explained. ‘’This is a big problem.’’

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