By Ben Bland in Jakarta, Financial Times 6/23
Thick, stifling smoke clouds are an annual blight in the dry season on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, when forest and peatlands are illegally set alight to clear space to grow lucrative oil palm and trees for paper production.
Usually it is the millions of Indonesians who suffer the health consequences of these bad environmental practices, which are sustained by weak governance and corruption at a time when global demand for palm oil, used in everything from shampoo to biofuels, and paper products is soaring because of rapid economic growth in markets such as China and India.
Over the past two weeks, the wind blew north and east concertedly, wafting the haze to neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, where air pollution levels soared to the highest on record, angering residents and rekindling a long-running diplomatic dispute that has ensnared some of the world’s biggest plantation companies.
The blame game intensified over the weekend, with the Indonesian government and NGOs trading accusations over responsibility for the fires with some of the large plantation companies operating in the region
With plantation owners, small-scale farmers, local officials in Sumatra and the national governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore all pointing the finger at each other, environmental scientists say little has changed since the last major regional haze outbreak in 1997-98 and that hopes for a co-ordinated solution to the enduring haze problem are distant.
That raises serious doubts about the ability of Indonesia, one of the world’s biggest emitters of the greenhouse gasses that are believed to cause climate change, to achieve its ambitious target to cut carbon emissions by 26 per cent by 2020. READ MORE
The roar of chainsaws has replaced birdsong, the once-lush, green jungle scorched to a barren grey. The equivalent of six football pitches of forest is lost every minute in Indonesia.
Tanjung Puting Nat Park – Orang Utan, Proboscis Monkey Camp Leakey –
The disappearance of the trees has pushed thousands of animals—from the birds they harbour and sustain to orangutans, gibbons and black panthers—out of their natural homes and habitats.
They have been replaced by plantations that are too nutrient-poor to support such wildlife, instead dedicated solely to producing fruit that is pulped to make oil used globally in products ranging from food to fuel.
A palm oil tree can yield useable fruit in three years and continue doing so for the next 25 years. But such wealth creation has meant environmental destruction. “We don’t see too many orangutans any more”, said a worker with a weather-beaten face, taking a break in the shade of a hut built on a path gouged out of the forest floor.
Experts believe there are about 50,000 to 60,000 orangutans left in the wild, 80 percent of them in Indonesia’s Borneo and the rest in Malaysia. Exact data on their decline is hard to come by, say primatologists. “What we see now is a contest between orangutans and palm oil for a home,” said Sri Suci Utami Atmoko from National University in Jakarta. “You can judge that the population is depleting from the loss of orangutan habitats.” Gibbons, often recognisable by the rings of white fur that frame their faces, are among the hardest-hit species. “There are 100,000 gibbons in Borneo. But in 15-20 years, there will be more viable populations,” said Aurelien Brule, a French national based in Borneo for 15 years who runs an animal sanctuary. Gibbons rescued from the destruction of their forest homes cannot be returned alone into new wild habitats. “Other pairs protecting their own territory would kill them,” said Brule, adding that rampant deforestation has wiped out sites suitable for single animals. Enlarge A bulldozer that is used in clearing forest land for palm oil plantations in Borneo. The roar of chainsaws has replaced birdsong, the once-lush, green jungle scorched to a barren grey. The equivalent of six football pitches of forest is lost every minute in Indonesia. There is also a human cost, with the permits for plantations resulting in the eviction of indigenous people.
Abdon Nababan, the secretary general of AMAN, an Indonesian indigenous peoples alliance, said there is no exact data but recorded cases of land conflict are in the hundreds, with thousands of people possibly affected. “Palm oil has brought fortune to Indonesia, but it has been gained with blood,” said Jakarta-based forest campaigner for Greenpeace, Wirendro Sumargo. Indonesia, the world’s biggest palm oil producer, has exponentially increased the land dedicated to the commodity from 274,000 hectares (680,000 acres) in the 1980s to 7.32 million hectares in 2009, government documents show. The industry has helped push Indonesia’s GDP growth rate above 6.0 percent every year since 2005, but at the cost of huge tracts of rainforest. An area roughly the size of Denmark was lost between 2000 and 2010 across Indonesia and its neighbour Malaysia, according to a study published last year in the Global Change Biology journal. Despite some backlash around the world, including an unsuccessful attempt in France to push an amendment to quadruple tax on palm oil to discourage consumption—the destruction is unlikely to stop any time soon. Indonesia, which together with Malaysia holds 85 percent of the market, aims to increase production more than 60 percent by 2020. To appease environmental concerns, it last year imposed a moratorium on new permits in primary forests and peatlands. But critics say it is a cosmetic move, with plantations overlapping sensitive environments. One example can be found in the Tripa Peat Swamp Forest, in the northwest of Aceh province, home to endangered species such as Sumatran rhinos and tigers. In this area, “we have evidence that five palm oil firms are doing illegal practices”, said Deddy Ratih, forest campaigner for WALHI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia. Derom Bangun, the chairman of umbrella organisation the Indonesian Palm Oil Board, doesn’t deny the issue but says improvements are being made. “The government has seen (the violations) and has taken steps to fix it. Ultimately we want the palm oil industry to work according to the rules,” he added. In an effort to improve their image, some palm oil firms have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a forum consisted namely of green groups and growers. The WWF, one of the founders of RSPO, admitted that there is still a conservation shortfall. “Generally land allocation for plantations still overlaps with primary forests and peatlands, including in areas that are the habitat of key species,” said Irwan Gunawan, WWF deputy director of market transformation in Indonesia. “We are encouraging the government to pay attention to this,” he added.
With the population of orangutans continuing to plummet at a rate of between 1,000 and 2,500 a year, the need for more urgent action is clear. A coalition of three campaign groups plans to make 2013 the year when the killing has to stop: Centre for Orangutan Protection (Indonesia), Friends of the Orangutans (Malaysia), Nature Alert (Rest of the World)
Plans are underway to draw attention to the primary cause of the decimation of species like the orangutan: namely the palm oil industry.
The present population of orangutan is thought to be 50,000 to 60,000. The species will freefall to extinction in the next two decades.
We must not and we will not sit around watching this magnificent species be slaughtered by the rapid spread of palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. We must save the orangutan and to do this we need to save its habitat.
Living only in Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans are divided into two species: Sumatran and Kalimantan. In the Malaysian state of Sabah there are only about 10,000 remaining, down from about 40,000 in the late 1960s.
Sarawak has about 2,000 orangutans and the prospects for survival are bleak due to rampant logging. The state of Sabah (Malaysia) happily permits logging companies to destroy the forest forever.
This is a very sad reflection on those empowered to protect the species, namely the Sabah Wildlife Department.
The island of Sumatra has about 6,000 orangutans left and these are disappearing fast due to deforestation by palm oil companies demanding new land, including “protected” forests for their crops.
Kalimantan holds a rapidly declining population of some 40,000 orangutans. There are about 1,000 orangutans in rescue centers throughout Indonesia, the vast majority of them victims of the palm oil industry.
The Indonesian government admits orangutans have been deliberately killed at the rate of 3,000 a year for the last 25 years.
Unless palm oil companies do something now orangutans will be killed until they are all gone.
Year of the Orangutan will focus the world’s attention on the palm oil industry and its destructive, corrupt lust for profits at any price.
The palm oil industry is the biggest killer of orangutans and many other protected species. Prosecutions in Indonesia are rare and never happen at all in Malaysia.
The evidence against palm oil producers for the mass slaughter is overwhelming. Documentary films, scientific reports, news reports all point the finger at the palm oil industry.
We demand the palm oil industry declares a “No Kill — Zero Tolerance” policy. And then backs this up by involving NGOs and scientists in monitoring progress. Palm oil producers, and those who buy their products, have the blood of tens of thousands orangutans on their hands.
There is little time left to save this species. Habitat is sacrificed everyday to boost the bottom line of company balance sheets, and satisfy shareholders.
People of Indonesia, please give the orangutans your support. These animals are an irreplaceable national treasure. Save them now or lose them forever.
Centre for Orangutan Protection
- Orangutan Burned by Villagers in Indonesia Dies (gettingonmysoapbox.wordpress.com)
- The orangutan population is on the brink (cbsnews.com)
In an effort to deter people from keeping orangutans in captivity, animal activists and researchers have demanded tough sanctions for anyone keeping the animals as their pets, even after turning them over to the authorities.
“It is most effective if there is an agreement that they [violators] will get a heavy punishment next time,” said Sri Suci Utami Atmoko, an orangutan researcher at the National University in Jakarta. “Otherwise, there will be no deterrent.”
Suci said that people who live in and around plantation and mining areas find the orangutans and keep them. The animals most likely wandered out of their habitats because of encroachment due to growing plantation and mining activities.
The researcher added that the process of releasing orangutans back into the wild takes a long time, costs a lot of money, and that steps must be taken to prevent their being recaptured or returned to captivity.
She added that it costs about $3,500 per year to care for an orangutan that has been in captivity, and prepare it for a life in the wild. That cost does not include health care.
“We are also very disappointed that while we are releasing orangutans back to nature, defendants in orangutan killings are only given sentences of between eight and 10 months,” Suci said. “Where is the deterrent effect?”
Experts say there are 50,000 to 60,000 orangutans remaining in the wild. Eighty percent of them are in Indonesia and the rest are in Malaysia.
Many conservationists have raised concerns that the country’s orangutans could become extinct.
A joint survey by 19 organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, WWF and the Association of Primate Experts, recently discovered that about 750 orangutans died in 2008 and 2009, mostly because of conflicts with human beings.
The Orangutan Reintroduction Center of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in Nyaru Menteng, Central Kalimantan, has released 23 of the 40 orangutans scheduled to be released this year.
At the Reintroduction Center in Samboja Lestari, East Kalimantan, only six of the projected 30 primates have been released.
Jamartin Sihite, BOS chief executive, said recently that the problems and high cost of releasing back orangutans to the wild was due to a shortage of suitable land for a habitat.
“There isn’t enough land that’s suitable and free from disruption,” he said.
In trying to secure more land, the foundation had to obtain land concession rights from the Forestry Ministry.
It paid Rp 13 billion ($1.4 million) for the rights to 86,450 hectares of land for the next 60 years, Jamartin said.
A campaign run by environmental activists has helped lead to a 64 percent reduction in palm oil use by eight major food companies in Norway, reports Rainforest Foundation Norway, which led the effort.
Rainforest Foundation Norway and Green Living launched the palm oil campaign last fall highlight links between palm oil consumption and deforestation in Southeast Asia. It aimed to reduce demand for palm oil in the Scandinavian country, where palm oil consumption was roughly 3 kilogram per year, mostly through processed food products.
The campaign asked major food companies to disclose their palm oil use and whether palm oil was certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an eco-certification initiative. Following the survey, the environmental groups published a ‘palm oil guide’ where consumers could look up the palm oil content in the products they buy. The effort went beyond traditional labeling which allowed palm oil to be listed generically as ‘vegetable oil’ or ‘vegetable fat’.
According to Rainforest Foundation Norway, the campaign had an immediate impact — Norwegian food producers started to scale back on, or even phase out, palm oil. Stabburet, which was once one of the country’s largest palm oil buyers, banished palm oil from its products completely, while Mills, the largest buyer, cut use by 95 percent. The result so far is food companies in Norway have reduced palm oil buying by 9,600 metric tons, or 64 percent of last year’s 15,000 tons worth of palm oil. Per capita palm oil consumption in Norway is set to fall to just over 1 kilo per year.
The campaign only targeted food manufacturers, not fast food chains and restaurants, cosmetics producers, or animal feed makers.
Lars Løvold, Director of Rainforest Foundation Norway, said the campaign could be a model for other countries.
“Norwegian food producers have demonstrated that it is possible to produce and sell food without palm oil, avoiding complicity in rainforest destruction,” said Løvold. “The experience from Norway should inspire consumers globally to demand food products which do not contribute to rainforest destruction.”
Palm oil is the most productive of commercial oil seeds but its expansion in recent decades has taken a heavy toll on rainforests and peatlands in Indonesia and Malaysia, which account for nearly 90 percent of global production. Green campaigners have thus targeted major palm oil buyers in an effort to shift the industry toward less damaging practices. In response, the palm oil industry, working with some environmental groups, have set up the RSPO which sets social and environmental criteria for palm oil production. The hope is that buyers are willing to pay a slight premium for RSPO-certified palm oil. Still some activists have criticized the RSPO as not being strong enough and are campaigning for stricter safeguards.
The palm oil industry asserts its crop offers more oil per unit of area than other oilseeds, reducing the need to clear forests relative to other crops. But that argument has failed to win over environmentalists who note that forest clearing for oil palm plantations has not slowed and is now expanding to other parts of the world, including West Africa, Central and South America, Papua New Guinea, and the South Pacific.
Norway is one of the world’s largest supporters of tropical forest conservation. It has committed three billion Norwegian krone ($500 million) per year to slowing deforestation, including billion dollar pledges to Indonesia and Brazil for forest protection programs. The country’s pension fund nevertheless continues to invest in companies associated with forest conversion, a sore point for activists
- Cargill Admits Buying Palm Oil from Illegally Cleared Orangutan Habitat (understory.ran.org)
- Groups say palm oil production threatens rainforests, wildlife (wtvr.com)
- Profitable palm oil leaves environment poor (edition.cnn.com)
- Cargill needs to come clean … Ashley Schaeffer, Rainforest Action Network (point4counterpoint.wordpress.com)
The Wall Street Journal – Just when it seemed safe to take a deep breath in Southeast Asia, the smoky haze that envelops the region each year is wafting up from Indonesian forests again.
Increasingly, though, experts aren’t just blaming Indonesians, who in the past have been accused of recklessly burning forest land on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan to make way for palm oil plantations – a practice that produces the smoke that then drifts northward over Singapore and Malaysia. Indonesian authorities have typically said they are doing their best to police the problem, which is hard to do given the country’s vast size and limited enforcement resources.
The question is whether other actors are fanning the flames, says Anthony Tan, executive director of the Centre for Environment, Technology & Development, Malaysia (CETDEM).
“The haze comes from Sumatra and Kalimanthan. Which companies own the estates? Malaysian and Singaporean as well as local plantation owners,” he said. As a result, “Malaysian and Singaporean companies in Indonesia also have to bear the responsibility of open burning, of slashing and burning, that is happening within their estate territories.”
Moreover, he added, “it is the respective governments’ responsibility to take them to task. Just because they operate in a foreign country, they can’t wash their hands and say it does not affect us” when it actually does.
The issue is flaring up again because the smoke, which tends to appear at least once a year, is intensifying again.
According to Malaysia’s Department of Environment, satellite images show the number of “hotspots” producing smoke in Sumatra increased to 122 on June 13 from 67 the day before. The image also showed haze drifting from Riau in central Sumatra en route towards the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. Satellite images released by the Asean Specialized Meteorological Centre on June 18 June showed hotspots in Sumatra had risen further to 310 from 163 the previous day.
Malaysia’s DOE also said that on the morning of June 15th, air quality readings in three areas reached an unhealthy level of 131. Air quality readings improved by Monday, June 18.
In Malaysia, at least, authorities agree that it’s not entirely Indonesia’s fault, and they say they are doing what they can to help alleviate the situation, including reducing burning within Malaysia’s own borders. The DOE has imposed a temporary ban on open burning in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor except for religious purposes and barbecues with a fine up to RM500,000 or imprisonment of up to five years or both.
Still, “from the trend of hotspots monitored through satellite imagery, it has always and clearly shown that most of the hotspots originated from Indonesia and (then) the smoke plumes trespass the neighboring countries,” a DOE official said in a written response.
That doesn’t necessarily address the issue of Malaysian companies operating in Indonesia, though. According to Indonesia’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur, as much as 25% of the palm oil plantations in the archipelago nation are owned by Malaysian companies. This is largely because scarcity of land in Malaysia has forced big plantation companies there to expand abroad.
Many of Malaysia’s biggest palm oil companies, including Sime Darby Bhd., IOI Corp. Bhd. and Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd., are members of the Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is dedicated to making palm oil production more environmentally-friendly, and which has a zero burning policy. Its members must be certified by RSPO as responsible producers. Moreover, many analysts say they doubt many of the biggest companies would want to engage in burning because it could be too detrimental to their reputations.
But last year, the London based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and its Indonesian partner Telapak said they had documentary proof that KLK subsidiary PT Menteng Jaya Sawit Perdana was burning land. KLK denied the accusations. In a statement, plantation director Roy Lim said “KLK has long abandoned using fire to clear land for new planting or replanting. Our policy and practice is zero burning for such activities.”
Whatever the case, Indonesian officials say it’s hard to police an industry that covers so much terrain and they suspect some other producers might be burning land, or buying land from farmers who burn the trees themselves.
“Of course we don’t know who does it,” said Suryana Sastradiredja, an Information, Social and Cultural Affairs Minister-Counselor at the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur. But it’s hardly surprising some land owners would want to set fires, he says. After all, “burning is the traditional method – the cheapest way to open new land.”
- Haze Over Malaysia Points to a Regional Problem (nytimes.com)
- Fires in Indonesia Threaten the Citizens of Kuala Lumpur (news.softpedia.com)
- Smokey Haze from Indonesian Fires Engulf Southeast Asia (nytimes.com)
- Haze returns to Malaysia (newsinfo.inquirer.net)