Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Biofuels threaten food security and environment

Jakarta Post 24th June

Biofuels threaten food security and environment
by Jonathan Wootliff,

Less than two years ago few people knew about biofuels. Today, Indonesians are struggling to cope with the escalating costs of daily essentials, like rice, as the amount of agricultural land being used to produce this new source of energy increases.

A combination of skyrocketing oil prices and the need to find alternatives to climate changing fossil fuels is driving this new biofuel obsession.

Environmentalists are becoming increasingly worried about the adverse impacts this will have on the country's rapidly diminishing rainforests.
It's a cruel irony that biofuels, which were developed as an alternative to greenhouse gas-emitting petroleum, threaten the environment. Experts fear that the attractive revenues derived from biofuels will result in a surge toward the conversion of conservation-rich land.

Land use in Indonesia is already complicated and muddled without this additional burden.

An airplane view of much of Sumatra and Kalimantan shows a scarred and chaotic landscape.

The rate of forest loss is accelerating.
On average, about a million hectares a year were cleared in the 1980s, rising to about 1.7 million hectares per year in the first part of the 1990s.
Since 1996, deforestation appears to have increased to a devastating annual average of two million hectares.

Opportunistic planting of oil palm by misguided farmers on land that cannot sustain the crop often results in vast abandoned areas reminiscent of desserts.

Although outlawed, slash and burn practices continue to cause massive fire destruction, and illegal logging abounds at an alarming pace.

In spite of sound forestry and environmental laws designed to protect high conservation value forest, the habitats of some of the world's most precious and threatened species are going fast.

According to environmental NGO Greenpeace, the country's forests are disappearing at the rate of three hundred soccer pitches every hour.

Demands that the government do more to enforce the laws to protect these forests often falls on deaf ears. In spite of the impressive rhetoric from the forestry minister and other officials, the destruction marches on.

No sensible environmentalist is campaigning for Indonesia to be deprived of using forest and other land for economic development. Millions of people depend on it for their survival. But it has to be managed. That's what sustainable development is all about.

Degraded forests provide ideal land for agricultural use, and there is plenty forest with limited conservation value suitable for development.
Land needs to be strictly delineated so that environmentally important areas are protected. Until this is done, the use of land for the growing of biofuels must be regarded with great caution.

We simply cannot allow the biofuel lobby to argue that its products will help us to combat climate change, when their crops are devastating Indonesia's remaining ecologically sensitive places.

Land used for biofuel is displacing traditional crops, thus driving up food prices. And land use for biofuel crops is increasing the destruction of the nation's rainforests.

Farmers must be discouraged from the allure of attractive revenues derived from growing biofuels. Short-term financial gains will lead to longer-term economic woes.

Contrary to what the exponents of biofuel are saying, this is clearly not a panacea for climate change or rising fuel costs.

There is surely a strong enough case here for the government to sharpen its focus on the biofuel challenge and enforce environmental law.

This is urgent and must be done in the interests of both Indonesia's environmental and food security.

Jonathan Wootliff is an independent sustainable development consultant specializing in the building of productive relationships between companies and NGOs. He can be contacted at jonathan@wootliff.com