Indonesia delays on bilateral deal to save rainforests

Posted on January 6, 2011


Deforestation in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of WWF

At the start of this year, the Indonesian Forestry Ministry announced plans to help keep its virgin forests intact by offering land concessions to companies to use previously logged areas.

It’s part of a two-year moratorium with Norway, which will pay Indonesia (one billion dollars) for proven emissions reductions. Everything seems to come with a price tag these days.

But the deal which was meant to start on Jan 1st, has been put on hold and it’s still being thrashed out. The moratorium has not yet become law; there is divided opinion on what exactly the 2-year ban will cover and plantation and mining firms face uncertainty over whether they’ll be awarded permits or whether they’ll be compensated.

The delay is a huge disappointment for so many, who had hoped to start the new year with a bang following the climate change talks in Cancun. Instead it’s become a bit of a damp squib that has left opinion divided and supporters wondering how long it will take to reach a concrete agreement.

The news, took me back to a brief encounter (no Noel Coward renditions here please) I had with the remarkable, Dr Birute Galdikas last month. She’s been a champion of the orangutan species “for more years than she cares to remember” and is as passionate about safeguarding them now; as she was when she first set foot in South East Asia during the 1970s (more on Galdikas on post entitled ‘Leakey’s Angels’).

Birute Galdikas - photo courtesy of Orangutan Foundation International

I met Dr Galdikas at a charity event – a charming, affable woman with a great sense of humour.  But she is also one of the most straight-talking activists I’ve met, always aware of potential set backs and one step ahead. As a natural-born cynic, I found her realism very refreshing, compared to some of the happy-clappy idealists I’ve met on the circuit.

The message she drummed into me that night was dead serious though. We spoke about her love of South East Asia and the orangutans and the threats to their existence. She told me,  “Don’t buy any products that contain palm oil. It’s destroying the rainforests and everything in them. Tell everyone you know.”

The delay in the bilateral pact appears to highlight the quandary Indonesia faces – trying to cut down emissions while trying to encourage further economic growth – no easy task. It’s a country after all, that earns billions each year from deforestation to make way for palm oil; timber and paper production. A fact that Dr Galdikas is all too aware of.

According to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the UK is one of the top three importers of palm oil within the European Union.

And here’s the shocker……palm oil is in practically everything we buy, no matter how large or small the quantity. It can be found in bread; pastries; cosmetics; soaps; frozen food; cream cheese; pies; sweets; chocolates; biscuits; toothpaste; muesli and more recently used in biofuels. The list goes on!

But it’s also a hidden ingredient, often masked as “vegetable oil”, so even the greenest of consumer is none-the-wiser. Its impact however is certainly apparent in South East Asia and the effects are far from hidden.

The cost of producing palm oil means vast areas of tropical rainforests and peatlands in Malaysia and Indonesia are being ripped up at an incredible rate to make way for mile-after-mile of oil palm plantations – why? In simple terms, it’s the most productive oil seed in the world. How do you compete with that?

There’s such a huge demand for palm oil, that it’s even outstripped vegetable oil. It’s the fastest growing; highest yielding crop and is a hugely profitable.  It only requires a tenth of the land needed to grow comparable plants, such as soya.

Palm oil is derived from the plant’s fruit, which grow in clusters. These can weigh between 40-50 kilograms. A hundred kilograms of oil seeds usually produce  around 20 kilograms of oil, while a single hectare of oil palm may yield 5,000 kilograms of crude oil, or nearly 6,000 litres of crude oil that can be used in biodiesel production.

Palm oil seeds, photo courtesy of Greenpeace

According to the conservation organisation, Greenpeace, Indonesia already has 6 million hectares of oil palm plantations, but has plans for another 4 million by 2015 dedicated solely to biofuel production. Some conservationists have voiced concerns that the new deal could be derailed by big industries wanting to meet quotas.

Palm oil however doesn’t need to be grown on new forest land; it can easily be grown on areas that are considered “degraded” without the destruction of further forests. Some conservationists define degraded, as areas that have been cleared of their natural vegetation cover and now contain low levels of biodiversity and low stocks of carbon; and are not used for productive agriculture or human habitation.

In 2009 a report by the United Nations (UN) found that despite Indonesia not being fully industrialised, it was the fourth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases – mainly due to deforestation.

Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono aims to cut the country’s emissions by 26 per cent by 2020, while trying to maintain the same economic production levels.

Indonesia’s trade minister is reported to have told the news agency Reuters, that palm oil exports are expected to grow 16 per cent in value this year with new investment in the sector. But there are plans to review existing permits.

All the forests in Indonesia, especially on the island of Borneo, hold globally significant species: orangutans, pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinos and clouded leopards and tigers. If their habitat is not protected these animals will all die out.

Orangutans are Asia’s only great ape. There are two species Pongo abelii (on Sumatra)and Pongo pygmaeus (on Borneo). Under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the Sumatran orangutan is classified as critically endangered and the Bornean as endangered. They are also the largest arboreal mammal in the world.

Sumatran orangutan, courtesy of National Primate Research Centre, USA

Orangutan from Borneo, courtesy of GRASP

Orangutans are wholly dependent on trees for their existence, and rarely descend to the forest floor. These great apes are also the slowest breeding of all primates and, at eight years, have the longest inter-birth interval. Many primatologists believe the orangutan could become the first great ape to go extinct.

Under the new climate deal with Norway, Indonesia also has to select a province to test programmes that boost conservation, training and steps to improve livelihoods. The province of Central Kalimantan on Borneo island has been earmarked.

Deforestation by big companies muscling in, not only affects the biodiversity but it has serious consequences for local communities. They end up displaced with nowhere to go and their ancestral knowledge of the forests is ignored and forgotten.

The demand for palm oil by countries like the UK, America and China are all driving the production of this crop.

In 2005, Friends of the Earth (FoE) released a report called “The Oil for Apes Scandal” where it estimated that one in ten leading supermarket products contained palm oil.  In 2009, the newspaper, The Independent, carried out its own investigation and claimed that at least 43 of Britain’s 100 bestselling grocery brands contained palm oil. At the time, it said this figure represented £6bn of the UK’s £16bn annual shopping basket for top brands.

There are no quick fixes, like with everything in conservation. But there are sustainable concepts to on-going difficult problems.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) is an environmental think-tank, which aims to find practical ways to protect the earth and improve people’s lives.

In an interview with the on-line environmental website WRI said it’s interested in ensuring that future growth is not at the cost to remaining forests. WRI is creating a mapping project to identify sites for “land swaps” where concessions on forest land could be shifted to deforested grasslands.

Palm oil plants in Indonesia. Photo courtesy, Beth Gingold, WRI

The initiative also provides guidelines to plantation companies for obtaining the consent of communities living near the degraded area and achieving Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification.

To be certified by the RSPO, producers must show they meet a series of principles and criteria, such as protecting rainforest and natural habitats, respecting human rights and avoiding polluting or harming the environment.

It’s no surprise that plantation and mining companies have objected to the moratorium because of concerns that it’ll slow the expansion of firms. Big companies need to start being more accountable for their social and environmental impact and they absolutely have together to give producers in Indonesia and Malaysia a commercial incentive to work sustainably, regardless of size.  But at this rate, they have little to worry about, until the Indonesian government put pen to paper and make the pact legal.