We’ve arrived in Sungai Pakning, a small port on the coast of Riau in Sumatra, and the Esperanza is anchored in a wide, silty channel running between the mainland and two islands, Pulau Bengkalis and Pulau Padang. The soupy water flowing gently past the ship will be down to the Siak river, the mouth of which is just a few miles south.
Sungai Pakning might be small, but the signs of what’s happening further inland are everywhere. Large container ships wait patiently at anchor for their cargoes and the flame at the top of a refinery lights up the night sky. For we’re on the edge of the great plantations which have come to dominate this area, both the oil palms we’ve seen so much of and, increasingly, acacia trees which are being harvested to be used as pulpwood and paper.
All these plantations are sitting on areas which used to be lowland forest growing in thick, water-logged peat. Of course, the forest is no longer there and the peat has been drained and burnt, causing the annual smog which drifts over south-east Asia during the burning season. It’s this chopping, draining and burning which is releasing colossal quantities of greenhouse gases and helping to give Indonesia the number three spot in the global emissions charts.
Tweety has been heading out on further reconnaissance missions. The rainy weather has been frustrating our efforts but John and Kasan – photographer and videographer respectively – have already made a couple of flights over the Kampar peninsula. It’s an area we’re particularly interested in because it has a large area of swampy forest which is still intact, and it was the scene of last year’s Forest Defenders Camp where dams were built and banners raised.
Sadly, the news is not good. As you can see from the image above, bulldozers are clearing through some of the remaining areas of forest. Just picture it: a few days (or even hours) before our camera got there, that piece of land was covered in forest which had probably been there for thousands of years. Now it’s gone, taking with it the wildlife and vegetation it harboured, and removing any possibility that local communities might be able to sustain themselves. It was happening while the helicopter flew past, and it’s still happening as you read this.
There is a chunk of peatland forest within the peninsula which enjoys protection but a quick glance at the detailed map of the area reveals that it’s encircled by logging and plantation concessions owned by companies such as Duta Palma, Asian Agri and Asian Pulp and Paper (APP, a subsidiary of palm oil giant Sinar Mas), and with illegal logging rife there’s no guarantee it will remain untouched. These are the same companies who are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil who, in theory at least, are not supposed to be ravaging the environment like this.
Much of Sumatra’s forests are gone. As I discovered at the seminar we held in Jakarta last week, Riau used to be awash with trees but it’s been stripped away and replaced with oil palm plantations as well as acacia for pulpwood and paper. So if that’s the case, why bother trying to save a few small areas? Because the stakes are high. The depth of the remaining peat in the Kampar peninsula is up to 15m in places, so there’s a lot of carbon locked up there. If that were all to become converted into endless monocultures, then we’re looking at a release of greenhouse gases equivalent to an entire year’s worth of global emissions.
A few weeks ago, I saw the forests of Papua and West Papua interrupted by logging roads and a few plantations, but largely they’ve been undisturbed. Here in Sumatra, the reverse is true, and the fate of the forests here could be repeated back in New Guinea.
We’re sticking around here for a few days to do some more research – I’ll let you know what we find. In the meantime, here are a few more of John’s photos from the past two days.
posted by Jamie on board the Esperanza