Indonesia: Biofuel Threatens Indigenous Farmers and Tropical Forests

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From The Australian, November 24, 2007

Elderly ethnic Dayak farmer Hussin sits on the raised timber floor of his home, a shack on 6ha of mixed forest, itself nestled in thousands of hectares of oil palm plantation.Hussin (“I’m probably 65 or 70, I’d say”) and his wife, Barnian, are holdouts against the relentless march of Indonesia’s new boom crop: they settled their little plot in Central Kalimantan just before the surrounding forest’s annihilation a year ago. Each year, Indonesia loses an estimated two million of its 90 million hectares of rainforest, much of it to palm oil developments in Kalimantan, Sumatra, Riau, Sulawesi and Papua. While official policy is to only allow new plantations on the vast stretches of already degraded forest land from earlier timber booms, in reality it’s far cheaper to convert virgin rainforest for the extra profit the timber attracts, which then helps defray the cost of starting oil palm crops.

The company wants him out: Hussin says visiting agents have offered Rp425,000 (a little more than $50) a hectare for his land, perched only a few kilometres from the largely forest-surrounded Lake Sembuluh. Given that crude palm oil prices are expected to hit $US1000 ($1140) a tonne soon and are increasingly being linked to the spectacular rise in fossil-based crude oil prices, Hussin, who doesn’t exactly watch the world markets, gets the feeling he probably is being duped.

“I don’t want to sell it. I want to think of my grandchildren’s welfare first,” he says, but then admits that the company men don’t bother him too much. “They know they can’t take it from me.”

In many parts of densely forested Indonesia, land ownership is a fluid thing: ask a Dayak how far his land extends, people say, and he’ll point casually in each direction without even changing his gaze, repeating the indigenous language claim: “Ayung kuh” (it’s all mine).

Native concepts of land ownership, which still have the strength of law in those parts of Indonesia where they can be proved, emphasise collective over individual property rights.

Thus Hussin was able to establish the patch on which he now squats, square-jawed and determined, with little concern that global capital will bulldoze him and his nonexistent ownership papers, for the time being at least. But Hussin and many other indigenous Indonesians, dotted in hidden corners of plantations across the archipelago, face increasing pressure as investors pour into the palm oil industry.The contradictions of palm oil production are not lost on its critics: fuelled by the hunt for fossil fuel alternatives in a bid to win green credentials, Indonesia is rapidly giving away its pristine rainforest and in the process making itself a world leader in carbon emissions. It’s also threatening endangered species and losing valuable traditional medicine knowledge. But big corporations and investors are taking a huge punt on the industry, to which Indonesia and Malaysia contribute more than 80 per cent of the world’s supply of about 30 million tonnes, a figure anticipated to double by 2020.

In Indonesia’s case, many of the companies involved are still associated with the same figures who presided over corrupt deforestation policies during the era of former president Suharto, deposed in 1998.

“There is a four million tonne per year growth in demand in the vegetable oils industry generally and, unfortunately, no other countries in the world can fulfil it as we can,” Indonesian palm oil association chairman Derom Bangun says. As well as demand from the biofuel boom, about 10 per cent of cosmetics, snack foods and other consumer items on supermarket shelves are estimated to rely on palm oil as an ingredient.

Bangun presided over this week’s Kuala Lumpur round table on sustainable palm oil production that agreed to a set of standards that would try to limit the environmental damage – including to endangered fauna such as orang-utans, elephants and tigers – caused by the rush.

In addition to primary producers, round table members include retailers such as British cosmetics chain the Body Shop and conservation watchdog the World Wide Fund for Nature. However, even the toughest standards require adherence and, given the industry’s reliance on self-regulation, there are grave doubts about whether this can work.

Danish former flight attendant Lona Droscher-Nielsen, who eight years ago established an orang-utan rescue centre near the Central Kalimantan capital, Palangkaraya, likens Indonesia’s forest destruction ahead of the plantation wave to the effect of a tsunami.

“The Indonesian Government says it is concerned about a perception in the international community that palm oil is destroying the forests, and that this is not true,” says a frustrated Droscher-Nielsen. “We simply have to show them that it is.”

The further nexus between wild animals and palm oil becomes clear when beasts driven from their natural habitat wash up lost and hungry in denuded areas or even stage plantation foraging raids that meet with deadly human retaliation.

Many palm oil operations, the most successful of which have on-site housing, schools and health clinics as well as oil processing plants and heavy engineering divisions for opening up new crop land, have also established specialised “pest-hunting” units to deal with the threat to their crops. They deny these are intended to eradicate endangered species, but several workers suggest otherwise to Inquirer. One, a Javanese migrant labourer named Rudianto living in quarters on a several thousand hectare operation near Sembuluh village, says that when he arrived a year ago, “there used to be lots of orang-utans … but now it’s getting a lot better. They’ve mostly been hunted out.”

Rudianto admits he once helped spear an orang-utan that had encroached on plantation land, although when quizzed on the detail he recants and says: “No, actually it was just tied up and taken away.”

Protection of wildlife, while on the Indonesian Government’s agenda, is partly hampered by resource allocation and partly by the attitude that progress requires sacrifice. As one forestry official says: “I am a conservationist, but I must tell you I am not a conservative.”

The pithy summing up of policy comes from Mega Hariyanto, a measured and thoughtful middle-aged Javanese with long experience in the field who has recently arrived in Palangkaraya to head up the Forestry Department’s conservation section there. He is responsible for tackling illegal logging and protecting endangered species, with a staff that includes armed rapid response squads who can rappel into dense forest from helicopters. But, he warns, all factors must be taken into account and he insists that “things are nowhere near as bad as they used to be since all parties started working more closely together”.

“Conservation is part of development, but it is not the most important part. Conservation must be integrated into development,” Hariyanto explains. “There are no formulas in life that are perfect for all situations. All we can do is deal with each circumstance as it comes.”