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