Indonesia is being deforested faster than any other country in the world, and it has everything to do with one product: palm oil.
According to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change, deforestation in the Southeast Asian archipelago is nearly double the rate in the Amazon. Indonesia is said to have lost 840,000 hectares (3,250 square miles) of forest in 2012 while Brazil — which has four times Indonesia’s rainforest — lost a still-massive 460,000 hectares.
The report’s authors found that government figures underestimated the true toll of forest clearing by as much as half. In the last 12 years, it’s possible that the destruction of one million hectares of “primary forest” went unreported.
The tree-killing spree is largely due to slashing and burning vegetation for the expansion of palm oil plantations to feed growing demand in countries like China and India. Americans and Europeans are still far and away the top consumers per capita — it’s estimated that palm oil can be found in roughly half the manufactured goods in any supermarket or drug store. Everything from peanut butter to soap to cosmetics contains the oil in its various forms.
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The oil palm, from which palm oil is extracted, is native to West Africa but was brought to Asia’s tropical regions by traders during the mid-19th Century. Today it is grown across the globe between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn — but Indonesia and Malaysia produce upwards of 85 percent of a global market that is now worth 44 billion dollars.
From less than 800 square miles in 1967, palm oil cultivation in Indonesia now commands over 40,000 — an area roughly the same size as Ohio.
Fires in Indonesia produce some of the world’s worst pollution, sending suffocating smog to cities hundreds of miles away in Malaysia and Singapore.
Ironically, a 2011 moratorium in Indonesia on deforestation for plantations had the paradoxical effect of increasing clearing. Since the law only applied to new concessions and included a sunset on existing ones, companies worked overtime to cut, burn, and bulldoze as much of the rainforest as they could.
Clearing rainforest to make way for plantations has taken a heavy toll on local communities, destroyed natural habitats for endangered species, and become a critical (if underreported) factor in climate change. Replacing natural forests with palm oil plantations vastly diminishes the ability of vegetation to capture and store carbon dioxide. It’s estimated that deforestation contributes up to 20 percent of global warming.
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In Indonesia, where much of the land consists of carbon-rich soil known as peat, the problem is acute. Water-logged peat is commonly found in the jungles of Sumatra and Borneo, and merely exposing it to the air releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Though illegal, huge swaths of Indonesia are burned each year to clear forest for plantations, drastically increasing the release of carbon dioxide. Fires in peat-heavy areas can smolder for months or even years before they die out. Degradation of forest and peaty areas accounts for over 60 percent of carbon emissions in Indonesia. The country is the world’s third-worst emitter of greenhouse gases behind the US and China.
Fires in Indonesia produce some of the world’s worst pollution, sending suffocating smog to cities hundreds of miles away in Malaysia and Singapore. A thick haze from the island of Sumatra enveloped Indonesia’s neighbors last year, causing an environmental crisis and prompting Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to apologize. This year has been no better.
The clear-cutting of rainforest each year decimates the habitat of endangered species like orangutans, Sumatran tigers, Bornean rhinos, and pygmy elephants. In 2006 it was estimated that workers had clubbed at least 1,500 orangutans to death after they wandered onto palm oil plantations. Deforestation has caused the death of some 50,000 orangutans in the past two decades — which is now roughly the same number believed to remain in the wild.
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For people living in these areas, the loss of wildlife is reflective of their own plight. Collusion between corrupt government officials and plantation owners has increased illegal land seizures and effectively transformed residents overnight from subsistence farmers to forced labor — a practice that has been explicitly reported by the US Department of Labor at palm plantations in Malaysia, with child labor reported in Sierra Leone and Indonesia. Those who don’t cooperate may face the brunt of mercenaries hired by local suppliers.
“Subsistence forest dwellers are turned into wage slaves,” Jeff Conant, director of the environmentalist organization Friends of the Earth’s international forests program, told VICE news. “Rather than subsisting off the land, they work for very minimal wages.”
Even where communities are allowed to plant their own crops, locals end up growing oil palms because the only purchasers in the region are neighboring plantations. The money they earn is in turn often funneled back into those companies through stores they operate in the area, trapping them in a cycle of peonage similar to American sharecroppers a century ago.
“Governments say it’s the way to lift people out of poverty,” said Conant. “But that sets up this false dichotomy between environmental protection and economic growth, when in fact the economic growth benefits only the corporations.”
'Pretty much anywhere there’s rainforest it’s now lucrative to cut down the rainforest and plant oil palms.'
But because producing palm oil is so efficient — by some estimates up to ten times more so than other vegetable oils, and therefore requiring considerably less space for cultivation — it puts environmentalists in the awkward position of lobbying against a crop that could theoretically stave off further deforestation if it were managed properly.
“What you hear a lot is that global demand for palm oil is growing, which leads one to think that consumers somehow want palm oil,” said Conant. “But they want it because it’s cheap to produce, and it’s cheap to produce in part because companies are bucking economic, social, and environmental concerns. It’s the scale of the industry that’s really the problem.”
Public shaming has helped somewhat. Several multinational conglomerates have pledged to source their palm oil from sustainable producers. The world’s largest palm oil trader, Singapore-based Wilmar International, announced last year that it would stop working with suppliers that deforested virgin forests, burned peat, or exploited locals. But Friends of the Earth is skeptical of Wilmar — as they are of industry groups like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which they’ve called a “sham.”
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In an age of sprawling and outsourced supply chains, companies can have trouble determining the conditions where the materials they use are produced. By the same token, they feel less culpable should those suppliers violate human rights and environmental laws — a similar logic behind companies’ use of sweatshops.
Though the gravity of Indonesia’s plight demands particular attention, palm oil production is spreading.
In Uganda, the government is letting foreign companies build plantations on extremely sensitive islands in Lake Victoria. Drive very far along the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa and you’re bound to encounter alien-looking fields of oil palms, their mordant red fruit grown into plastic bags, ready to be picked. In Nigeria, Wilmar plans to tear down some of the country’s last remaining rainforest. But locals in Liberia are fighting back with government support against a land grab by a company called Equatorial Palm Oils. Should they succeed, their victory could provide a model for local resistance to seizures elsewhere.
With palm oil demand set to double by 2030, environmentalists have their work cut out for them. Already, the UN’s Environmental Program (UNEP) predicts that most of Indonesia’s rainforest could be destroyed by 2022.
“Pretty much anywhere there’s rainforest it’s now lucrative to cut down the rainforest and plant oil palms,” said Conant.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford