Sumatra’s dark, satanic mills

A small town for workers in the heart of a Wilmar palm oil plantation © Greenpeace/Novis

A small town for workers in the heart of a Wilmar palm oil plantation © Greenpeace/Novis

As a Greenpeace photographer, I find myself creating pictures in many interesting places. In any part of the world where there is a critical environmental problem, the Greenpeace photographers are there making the best visuals possible to share with everybody. Yesterday was no exception.

It was the last of the twice-daily, three-hour helicopter surveys of Riau province in Sumatra, carried out over the last four days. Every flight survey has been fascinating but this one – documenting the palm oil plantations belonging to Wilmar, one of the biggest palm oil companies in Indonesia – was breathtaking on a scale I have never seen before.

After flying a short while over intact and beautiful peatland forest, in the distance there appeared what looks like a sea or enormous lake. As we approached, we started to make out a green plain stretching to the horizon. Closer still and we knew we had found what we were looking for – the Wilmar plantations.

A very short commute to the plantation from these houses © Greenpeace/Novis

A very short commute to the work from these houses © Greenpeace/Novis

The forest ends like a clean-cut cliff and acres upon acres of oil palms take over the view point passing endlessly by, with straight dust roads intersecting each other over small man-made canals. Occasionally, a small group of workers’ houses with a little mosque punctuated the monotonous monoculture spanning all around us, as if we were not moving or going anywhere.

Around this panorama we started to see smoke drifting from different points in the 360-degree, flat palm tree plain. The smoke revealed a small factory, houses build up and a small town emerged within the plantation. As we circled the factory and I was photographing with interest, it became clear to me that the world’s demand for palm oil, found in countless cosmetics and consumables, has created an industrial revolution here in Riau.

Processing plants sit within the plantations as well &copy Greenpeace/Novis

Processing plants sit within the plantations as well © Greenpeace/Novis

It reminds me of the mill towns in the north of England where the boom times in cotton became a magnet for workers and the large towns grew rapidly. From the air, it’s so easy to see this rapid industrial progress, but also the sudden loss of huge areas of peatland forest, rich in biodiversity and carbon, simply trashed overnight for a quick buck.

While capturing everything on camera that I can, I was dismayed by the palm oil rush driven by this economic short-term thinking, funded and promoted heavily by the multinational’s greed for cheap oil at the expense of the forest’s treasures and threatened species, such as the Sumatran tiger and orang-utan.

Oil palm fruit being processed © Greenpeace/Novis

Oil palm fruit being processed © Greenpeace/Novis

Yet there is a further sting in the tail of this environmental catastrophe. The peatlands hold tonnes and tonnes of carbon and, when drained to make the plantations, it’s released in the atmosphere, contributing further to climate change.

Once back on the Esperanza, I edit my pictures and send them out to the world. Along with my colleagues who campaign tirelessly on creating a moratorium to save the peatland forests of Riau, I wish sense will rain down to stop this wanton destruction of something that is desperately fragile and so close to disappearing forever.

posted by John on board the Esperanza


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