Saturday, 8 December 2007

Demand for palm oil sets off wave of deforestation

Demand for palm oil sets off wave of deforestation

Pekanbaru, Indonesia - Muymunah is 75 and has seen a lot in her long life, but she's never experienced anything like the burning of tropical forests in Sumatra.

"Everything is burning here. Everything," said the Indonesian woman who farms land along Indragiri River on Sumatra. She gestures to a field, saying two years ago it was a lush forest. Now there's nothing there but charred stumps. When she notices one smoldering, she calls her daughter, who brings a bucket of water and puts out the flames.

In this region of Indonesia as elsewhere in the country, the forest is disappearing at a breathtaking rate. The environmental organisation Greenpeace estimates 300 football fields are destroyed every hour. The reason is palm oil, which is in demand in part because it is added to diesel fuel to make it more environmentally friendly.

Along the Indragiri River the tropical forest grows on a layer of thick turf. In order to ease the transport of valuable timber after it is felled, loggers dig canals. As a result the water level drops and the turf dries out.

"When the trees are gone, the ground temperature increases to as high as 70 degrees" Celsius, said Indonesian forestry worker Jonotoro. The slightest spark is enough to cause a huge fire.
"It burns like a pile of matches," said Michael Stuewe of the environmental organisation World Wildlife Fund. And it has emerged as an enormous climate issue for Indonesia. Because of the destruction of the forests Indonesia has become the third-largest source of carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activity, behind the US and China.

The cutting, burning and processing of the trees also exposes the forest floor, which in its natural overgrown state stores an enormous amount of CO2 - six to nine times more than a typical forest.

Indonesia, host of the world climate conference now under way on the resort island of Bali, plans to make protection of tropical forests an important topic during the meeting. In particular, Jakarta wants to be financially compensated for taking steps to protect the forests.

The compensation would have to be at least as lucrative as granting licenses to deforest, said environmental economist Fitrian Ardiansyah. The problem is that while the central government in Jakarta has passed a number of laws to protect the forest, local officials can be bribed to ignore them.

Muymunah knows nothing about those shenanigans. She sees only that nothing is as it was before the diggers arrived. The village community council is planting everything possible to help the ground recover. But nothing thrives on the dry and scorched turf.

When the palm oil companies announced they wanted to convert the fields into plantations, the residents of Kuala Cenaku were skeptical, though the deal was attractive. Lands belonging to a village typically got 40 per cent of the profit, they were told.

The diggers arrived two years ago and the trees disappeared. The village didn't receive a cent. The company torched the land last year, causing respiratory problems throughout the village for weeks. The residents are furious, said village leader Mursyid M Ali. Black sludge flows from the turf into the Indragiri and fish catches are down. Mursyid wants to hear nothing more about palm oil, which he said grows poorly on the land around Kuala Cenaku.

Jonko Virta, a Finn who manages a business line worldwide for the paper and pulp company April, admits the turf isn't exactly desirable from a paper-production perspective, but demand worldwide for paper is huge.

The pulp factory's annual supply of wood is equal to 10,000 hectares. The pulp is manufactured into all sorts of paper products - from facial tissue to diapers - and the company constantly submits applications for licenses to cut trees. But companies like April do not see themselves as destroyers of forests or carbon dioxide reserves.

Replanting trees is as natural as a baby suckling from its mother, said Virta, who proudly gives tours of the huge Palalawan plantation about an hour's drive south of Pekanbaru.
"We plant two million acacias here every year," he said. The company owns 91,000 hectares which have been planted with acacia trees since 2001. Acacia's grow about 2 centimetres a day and can be cut after six years.

Virta considers the company a steward of nature, though he admits the best approach for the forest would be to cover it with a glass dome and leave it alone. But that would not be economical, said Virta's environment manager Eliezer Lorenzo. People whose livelihood is the forest also live here, Lorenzo said. There must be a balance between people, planet and profit.

The real villain in the forests of Sumatra are contract loggers who without regard to the water supply have dug deep trenches to ease the transport of logs, said Virta. Conversely, April has built 1,000 dams to prevent the water table from falling more than 50 centimetres, Virta said.

In return for future licenses April promises to preserve the few bits of forest still intact. It wants to create plantations around these forests as a way to protect them against illegal logging.

Environmentalists look upon the proposal skeptically. Three years ago April built a 20-kilometre-long road near the natural preserve Tesso Nilo near Pekanbaru. The goal was to better connect the company's forests to its factory, but from a helicopter it is easy to see brown areas near the road, revealing the work of illegal loggers who also use the motorway.

One of the illegal loggers is Beni Nainggolan, whose house is less than 10 metres from the edge of the road. He, his five brothers and parents are one of about 30 families that moved to the area from northern Sumatra after hearing of the opportunities in logging. Typically, the families pay middlemen a nominal fee for access to the forest, then clear away the trees, sell the logs and plant palm oil trees.

These small operators, however, are not the ones causing major damage, the WWF says. But when the large companies come because cheap labour is available, that is the real problem.

The Nation Newspaper, Thailand