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Also see this page on oil palm, deforestation and biodiversity in Indonesia: The Disastrous Local and Global Impacts of Tropical Biofuel Production
http://www.illegal-logging.info/item_single.php?item=news&item_id=1964&approach_id=4 or http://www.energytribune.com/articles.cfm?aid=403
April 12, 2007
Feature: Curse of the biofuel boom: Palm oil killing rainforest
Christiane Oelrich, dpa
Palangkaraya, Indonesia -- Sulur is 50 years old, delicately
built, but strong as a bear. With high swings, the Indonesian
slams his axe into the stem of an oil-palm fruit bunch two,
three, four times. Then the bunch of black-orange, berry-like
fruits falls to the ground. He picks up the 10-kilogram bundle
and carries it about 50 metres to a nearby road.
Sulur, who uses only one name like many of his countrymen, wipes
sweat off his forehead before examining the next oil palm,
number 88 of the day. His daily quota is to harvest 100 palms,
but on some days, he manages to harvest 120 trees, which brings
As the palm-oil business booms and the oil mills in Kalimantan,
the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo, are operating at
full steam, deliveries that exceed the quota are always welcome.
Palm oil has long been used in a wide range of consumer
products, from margarine to sweets and soaps to cosmetics, but
since Europe and America have discovered palm oil as a
"biofuel," a cleaner-burning alternative to "dirty" mineral oil,
business has taken off even more - with disastrous consequences
for the environment.
Palm-oil consumption has more than doubled to more than 30
million tons each year in the past decade. But the
environmentally conscious people around the globe who have
driven the demand "haven't realized that they're destroying
Indonesia's nature in the process," said Iwan Wibisono of the
Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), an environmental organization.
Indonesia's rainforest, already exploited and decimated for
decades for its valuable hardwoods, is now slashed to make way
for new oil-palm plantations.
By 2008, Indonesia's government intends to expand the
plantations over 8.4 million hectares, an area the size of
Austria, from the 5.4 million hectares planted in 2004. Most of
the new plantations are to be set up in Kalimantan.
Because of this expansion drive, the World Bank cautioned that
Kalimantan's lowland rainforest might disappear within the next
three or four years.
Indonesia, which together with Malaysia is responsible for 80
per cent of global palm-oil production, harbours high hopes for
healthy profits in the years to come.
No other oil-yielding plant is as fruitful as the oil palm. Four
to 8 tons of oil per hectare make plantations into gold mines.
But environmental experts warned that while palm oil brings a
high price, it also exacts a high price.
"On Sumatra, most of the rainforest has already disappeared and
has been replaced by oil-palm plantations," said WWF palm-oil
expert Purwo Susanto, who grew up on a Sumatra plantation where
his father worked.
Environmental scientists like German Florian Siegert have also
established that the slash-and-burn method commonly used to
clear forest causes more carbon dioxide to be released into the
atmosphere than can be saved by burning biofuels like palm oil.
The clearing also poses a danger to forest residents, including
the endangered orangutan. Lone Nielsen, who runs a rescue
station for the primates near Palangkaraya in southern
Kalimantan, called oil-palm plantations the gravest threat to
the orangutans' survival.
"Their habitat is continually shrinking, so they invade
plantations in sheer desperation," the Dane said. The foraging
orangutans are seen as pests on the plantations and are often
killed, but plantation operators in Nielsen's area have started
to call in the station's rescuers instead. It receives five to
six orangutans a month and prepares them for return to the wild.
The plantation in Katingan district where Sulur works is
operated by the Bisma Dharma Kencana industrial and agricultural
conglomerate. Currently, less than half its 14,425 hectares is
planted in oil palms, but manager Ramadan Pane is expanding the
"Each tree yields one fruit bunch per week throughout the year,"
The plantation's total harvest last year was 38,000 tons of
fruit, which were made into 8,700 tons of palm oil.
The oil is shipped to the port city of Surabaya, where it is
bought by merchants and exported worldwide. A substantial amount
might end up in the European Union, which intends to raise its
proportion of biofuel from a current 1 per cent of all fuels to
10 per cent by 2020.
"Palm-oil exports are good business, so we are not categorically
against it," the WWF's Wibisono said, adding, however, that the
industry could be made more environmentally friendly.
"There are already extremely vast plantation areas in Indonesia,
yet they only yield half as much per hectare as those in
Malaysia, where better-quality seedlings, fertilizers and
plantation management have led to increased productivity," he
said. "These are areas where Indonesia should invest."
His organization is urging the establishment of new plantations
only in areas where rainforest have already been cleared.
"But financially strong investors seem to prefer virgin
rainforest because they can make an additional profit from
selling the logged wood," Wibisono said.
For the past three years, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm
Oil has worked to establish guidelines for production methods
that won't harm the environment. It brings together plantation
owners, merchants, consumer-product manufacturers, banks and
environmental protection organizations.
One of the forum's goals is to implement the use of a quality
seal so consumers would know if the palm oil in their soap or
chocolate originated from sustainable plantations.
Germany's federal government already has pipelined a new law,
due to come into effect in 2009, that all palm-oil imports must
be proved to have been derived from sustainable plantations.
The Bisma plantation is already fulfilling some of the criteria,
its manager said. According to Pane, no trees were felled to
establish the plantation and it is working with the government
to permit 500 farmers to grow their own oil palms on denudedland
around the plantation. The mill would guarantee to take their
fruit, and they could make about 125 dollars a month, instead of
barely 75 dollars as plantation workers.
Sulur, who has been working on the plantation for two years,
makes about 100 dollars, but only because he often exceeds his
daily harvesting quota.
His work is hard. Barely a breeze blows in the endless rows of
oil palms as he works covered in sweat six days a week. He has
four children with his wife, who also works on the plantation as
"My oldest studies physics," he said. "We want him to become a
teacher. I want to spare all my children from having to work on