Who’s who in palm oil, part two: commercial interests

See that yellow and black blob? That's Switzerland, about the same size as the area waiting to be converted into palm oil plantations

See that yellow and black blob? That Switzerland, about the same size as the area waiting to be converted into palm oil plantations

As we saw from the helicopter flights yesterday, palm oil is beginning to make its presence felt in Papua and West Papua. So far, we’ve surveyed plantations in two areas – Lereh near Jayapura last week and of course the one near Teluk Bituni from yesterday – and compared to the vast monocultures in Sumatra and Kalimantan, these are pretty small affairs. But their presence here is a reminder that huge areas of forest have already been carved up on paper between the Indonesian government and palm oil companies, and will be carved up for real if we don’t take action.

While only 60,000 hectares of palm oil have been planted in this region, the government has handed out permits covering four million hectares (that’s just a bit smaller than Switzerland), and at the moment much of this is densely forested. Palm oil producers like Sinar Mas, Medco, Korendo and Asian Agri have been given the rights to move in and expand their huge agribusiness operations but they’re not moving in en masse, at least not yet.

Part of the reason for their hesitation is the lack of infrastructure in the region, and large chunks of land in their concessions are, at present, remote and inaccessible. So the companies are engaging in a spot of land banking, buying up the rights while they’re still cheap and waiting for things like transport and labour resources to improve before moving in to convert the land into plantations.

Another reason is the current log export ban in Papua which the governor Barnabas Suebu implemented – with no legal way to sell timber from cleared forest areas, there’s no incentive for logging companies to move in. But the lack of resources available to police this export ban plays in the favour of loggers willing to flout the law, and as we witnessed this week, logging does still continue.

Of course, this insatiable expansion wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for the increasing demand for palm oil around the world. It’s used in a bewildering range of supermarket products, not to mention the growing biofuel market. So as well as the work we’re doing here in south-east Asia, we’ve been leaning on big consumer companies in Europe and the US – companies such as Unilever – to put pressure in turn on the palm oil suppliers to stop trashing the forests.

I mustn’t forget to mention the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil which features producers, suppliers, and consumer companies on its roster of members. The RSPO is supposed to promote the environmentally responsible production of palm oil, but weak standards and regulation enforcement mean some of its members (hello, Sinar Mas) are still blithely tearing up forest and peatland areas across Indonesia with no consequences to fear.

It’s a complex tangle and negotiating practical solutions is equally knotty. So rather than descend into protracted discussions that will drag on while trees are being replaced by oil palms, the immediate answer is to stop all deforestation in Indonesia so everyone has some breathing space and there’s time to work on long-term fixes.

I heard an analogy the other day which explains this perfectly. If you’re in a leaky boat, you don’t continue sailing and patch it up as you go; you pull into harbour and carry out a proper repair job. And that’s what we need the government here to do – put everything on hold before we all sink.

posted by Jamie, on board the Esperanza


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Paul Rice said,

    I am a European living in Singapore , and have been horrified by the forest destruction in Indonesia (and Malaysia ) , not only by Foreign companies , but also local SE Asian companies . This forest destruction habit seems to follow standard South East Asian political policy , as long as there is money to be made governments turn a blind eye , and that goes especially for Singapore.
    They do not seem to understand that forest destruction not only kills wildlife , but in a lot of cases has resulted in soil erosion and destruction of the fertile layer of earth , but also changes climate and rainfall.
    When talking to locals , even in SIngapore , they either don’t understand , or could not care less as long as they make money.
    Most Asians work 6 or 7 days a week , and often over 12 hours a day , how to inform and change the ideas of generations of these people who know nothing but authoritarian regimes , who themselves I find to be very technically and technologically ignorant even at the highest level.
    Also there should be surveyance of countries like Singapore who have by greed for sand , cement etc destroyed Indonesian islands .
    I have observed so much her concering watse and overconsumption that it makes me feel sick , and I will be leaving Singapore as soon as I can.
    I will be using my Catamaran to observe the region and its excesses

  2. 2

    Overconsumption is a problem in many other parts of the world, and I see it too back in the UK. Even though I try to keep my consumption down to a minimum, I know it still far exceeds that of people living in Bangladesh or the Sudan. But it is partly what’s driving the destruction we’re seeing in Sumatra and elsewhere in Indonesia, where short-term gain is prioritised over long-term benefits.

    It’s not exclusive to this part of the world and I think, as in any society, there are people at every level passionately defending the environment and civil rights, just as there are people who don’t realise or don’t care what’s happening.


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