Archive for palm oil

Palm oil giant destroying national park in Borneo

the result of Sinar Mas' operations in Kalimantan © Greenpeace/Dithajohn

Burnt forest: the result of Sinar Mas' operations in Kalimantan © Greenpeace/Dithajohn

The Esperanza is now anchored in Singapore harbour and there will be a few days of ship operations – taking on supplies and fuel, doing essential maintenance, that kind of thing. But all that’s happening without me. I disembarked yesterday and I’m finishing off a few things from a hotel in Little India. After weeks of daily cleaning chores, I have the strange urge to grapple a mop but I think the hotel staff would be bemused to say the least.

I mentioned that there was one final task left to do, however, and that’s to expose once more the environmental crimes of Sinar Mas. Across the South China Sea from here in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, Sinar Mas companies are clearing forests around the Danau Sentarum National Park, a wetland area protected under the international Ramsar convention, in order to expand their palm oil operations. The buffer zone which is being logged is vital to the health and biodiversity of the park, one of south-east Asia’s largest wetland areas and home to a wide range of species including clouded leopards, orang-utans and a large population of proboscis monkeys.

According to reports in the Indonesian press, in August the Indonesian forest ministry revoked the permits of 12 companies operating in the area, seven of which belong to Sinar Mas. The loggers were breaching national conservation and biodiversity laws, but despite having its permits removed, Sinar Mas is still clearing forests around the park, showing a blatant disregard for Indonesian law and international conservation agreements. Sinar Mas is of course the same company behind the palm oil shipment we blocked in Dumai last week.

All of this is happening under the nose of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Sinar Mas is a member of the RSPO and according to the organisation’s criteria for membership, it shouldn’t be cutting down these forests. And yet it is, because its executives know that being an RSPO member doesn’t actually mean anything and they won’t be penalised. Isn’t it time the RSPO started standing by its own principles and kicking out companies like Sinar Mas who obviously don’t care about the impacts their operations are having on the environment.

It’s not just in Kalimantan, either. According to internal documents we’ve had access to, Sinar Mas is planning to ‘develop’ huge areas of the Papuan forests we visited. Large-scale clearance is already underway near Jayapura and up to 2.8 million hectares are ear-marked for palm oil plantations, most of which is on forest and peatland areas.

The RSPO’s annual meeting starts tomorrow in Bali so we’ve released this information now to throw a harsh light on the organisation’s appalling lack of commitment to its own criteria. And a bit further ahead, global climate talks are being held in Poland next month as part of the next stage of the Kyoto Protocol. The protection of forests has to be an essential part of these discussions and the Indonesian government could help lead the way by enforcing a moratorium on deforestation, so one last reminder that you can write to the president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono asking him to do just that.

posted by Jamie in Singapore


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Revealing the facts about palm oil to the Chinese public

Shangwen gets ready to fly © Greenpeace/Maitar

Shangwen gets ready to fly © Greenpeace/Maitar

The Forest Defenders Camp we set up last year has gone, and so too has the ancient forest.

I saw the disastrous landscape through the lens of John our photographer and the pictures he has taken. I can feel the pain of our earth and I feel pain in my heart that I couldn’t catch the last cry of the forest which once stood in the same spot where we held the banner. There is an echo in my ears: the Earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the Earth. What will be the future?

The Earth needs a voice. The forests need a voice. I believe that’s why we, Greenpeace volunteers from around the world, stood in the middle of the devastation yesterday, even though many times we’ve felt hopelessness in the depth of our hearts. We must face the truth instead of turning our back and walking away. We must make decisions and take action instead of just talking while the forests are being chopped down. We must understand this: if we can not stop deforestation immediately, we will lose the struggle against climate change.

With the disappearance of forest will go the future of our children and grandchildren. It’s not just the business of politicians, industry leaders or even environmentalists and scientists, it’s all of our business.

As a forest campaigner from Greenpeace China, I am here with three Chinese journalists, because not only do we know we’re now citizens of the global village, but also because we understand we’re part of the crime of forest destruction here in Indonesia and around the world. We know we share the responsibility for stopping the crime. China is one of the largest consumers of palm oil in the world, and most of that is imported from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Journalist Hau Feng © Greenpeace/Maitar

Journalist Hua Feng © Greenpeace/Maitar

By standing in front of this forest wall, and by witnessing these destructive crimes, we hope to bring back the urgency to the public in China. We also want to send a message to all Chinese companies using palm oil – you’re part of the problem here since your suppliers are neglecting most, if not all, environmental principles, destroying the peatland forests and setting the timer on the climate bomb. It’s time for you to take action to stop it!

I know it won’t be an easy mission. I understand most Chinese consumers even don’t know what palm oil is or what palm oil is used for. I understand the deforestation is far away from China and the carbon dioxide emitted from the land can not be seen or touched by Chinese citizens. But I won’t lose my confidence since I truly believe what Greenpeace does: taking action to make positive changes.

And I know I’m not alone. I have the whole team in Greenpeace China and people from other Greenpeace offices to fight alongside me. And more importantly, I begin to hear the voices of Chinese citizens: the live broadcasting blog on the Tian Ya website, which two of the journalists are posting to, has received over 100,000 clicks within a week and we’ve got hundreds of positive feedbacks and comments. I know they’re the people we can rely on to fight for the earth and to fight for our own future.

posted by Shangwen on board the Esperanza

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Slash and burn in the forests of Sumatra

Now you see it...

Now you see it...

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. you don't. Until shortly before this picture was taken, pristine forest stood in that spot you don't. Until shortly before this picture was taken, pristine forest stood in that spot

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.

A bulldozer moves alongside canals used to drain peatland by palm oil company Duta Palma

A bulldozer moves alongside canals used to drain peatland by palm oil company Duta Palma

more devastation on Duta Palma land

Picking over the remains: more devastation on Duta Palma land

Oil palms stretching as far as the eye can see - another Duta Palma creation All images © Greenpeace/Novis

Oil palms stretching as far as the eye can see - another Duta Palma creation All images © Greenpeace/Novis

posted by Jamie on board the Esperanza

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Palm oil: it’s covered in greenwash

The handiwork of Sinar Mas, an RSPO member © Greenpeace/Rante

The handiwork of Sinar Mas, an RSPO member © Greenpeace/Rante

Jakarta is already a hazy blot on the horizon and we’re now sailing towards Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world and home to highly endangered species such as Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos and of course orang-utans. It’s extremely unlikely we’ll stumble across any of those but there’s no doubting what we will see – extensive areas of oil palm and pulpwood plantations where the forests and peatlands used to be.

And we cross the equator tomorrow morning. Given the experience of pollywogs on previous Greenpeace expeditions which have crossed the line, I’m a little apprehensive about what lies in store…

Speaking of palm oil, you may have already heard of an organisation called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and from the name, you might think that the whole problem with palm oil was, if not sorted, then at least in hand. Of course, if that were the case we wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of bringing the Esperanza to Indonesia to protest about the ongoing destruction of the forests at the hands of the palm oil industry.

Established in 2001, the RSPO was designed to set clear ethical and ecological standards for producing palm oil, so no one would have their land stolen from them or have their forests demolished. The RSPO’s own website lays out the problem:

“…there is serious concern that not all palm oil is being produced sustainably at present. Development of new plantations has resulted in the conversion of large areas of forests with high conservation value and has threatened the rich biodiversity in these ecosystems… The expansion of oil palm plantations have also given rise to social conflicts between the local communities and project proponents in many instances.”

Over the years, the list of members has grown so it now includes familiar global brand names such as Unilever, Nestle, Tesco, and Cadbury’s as well as other less well-known companies – Cargill, ADM, Duta Palma, Sinar Mas, Asian Agri and other palm oil producers and traders. Their annual meeting is being held in a few weeks’ time in Bali.

So if within the palm oil industry there’s all this awareness of the potential damage they could cause to both people and the environment, why are we still finding evidence of wholesale forest destruction? Just a couple of weeks ago, we found bulldozers belonging to Sinar Mas clearing huge tracts near Jayapura in Papua, and yet Sinar Mas is an RSPO member. There’s obviously something wrong somewhere.

That something is the basic set-up of the RSPO itself. As it currently exists, its standards and principles are too vague and weak to really do any good and, as we’ve seen, some of its members are happily chewing their way through rainforests and carbon-rich peatlands. There’s no danger of actually being penalised in any way by the RSPO, even though they’re supposed to abide by the code of conduct (pdf) which states “it is fundamental to the integrity, credibility and continued progress of the RSPO that every member supports, promotes and works towards the production, procurement and use of sustainable palm oil.” What kind of “integrity” or “credibility” does the RSPO have if it turns a blind eye when its members are clearing huge areas of forest or draining and burning peatlands?

It gets worse. The first shipments of palm oil which have been certified as ‘sustainable’ by the RSPO are due to arrive in Europe later this month from Malaysia’s United Plantations. Because the RSPO is handing out these certificates while at the same time tolerating the forest-trashing activities of Sinar Mas and friends, the organisation is really just a thick coat of greenwash for its members to coat themselves in.

We’ve been taking a good hard look behind the greenwash and there’s enough evidence in the two reports we’ve published in the last year – Cooking The Climate and Burning Up Borneo – to show the RSPO isn’t working. We also made good headway earlier this year to convince companies like Unilever that they need to do more. Never the less, part of our time in Sumatra will be spent gathering yet more evidence to show that something drastic needs to be done, like an immediate moratorium on all deforestation in Indonesia while there’s still some forest worth saving.

The Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is the only one who can put this moratorium in action – write to him now and tell him what he needs to do.

posted by Jamie on board the Esperanza

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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

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Who’s who in palm oil, part one: governments big and small

A river winds its way through a deforested area in the Lereh region of Papua, Indonesia © Greenpeace/Rante

A river winds its way through a deforested area in the Lereh region of Papua, Indonesia
© Greenpeace/Rante

We finally set sail from Jayapura on Wednesday evening. Under a half moon, the Esperanza slid west along the coast of Papua, dark jagged mountains rising into the silvery haze to port and a tropical thunderstorm chasing our tail. Sailing through the night and yesterday morning, we anchored at lunchtime to conduct some research trips. Tweety the helicopter was allowed to stretch her rotors and fly over the nearby areas of forest to see what kind of deforestation is (or isn’t) happening. But more on that another time.

First though, I want to start building a picture of the players involved in the palm oil industry which threatens to engulf the forests of Papua, starting with the political powers. It’s no surprise that the Indonesian government is keen to increase palm oil production, even though the country already produces more than anywhere else in the world. The global rush towards biofuels is one reason, and last year the government signed a deal with various companies and investment banks to develop its biofuel industry in a big way.

To meet these political and economic targets, huge areas of forest elsewhere in Indonesia have been replaced by row upon row of oil palms – I saw plantations like these several years in Sumatra and they really do go on forever. And yet earlier this year, the agricultural minister made a startling statement, claiming that the palm oil industry could expand without encroaching on the forests. He’s right too, if you accept the government’s definition of what a forest is.

We think a forest is still worth preserving when there’s only 10 per cent of it left; below 10 per cent and we’d say it was degraded. For the official purposes of the Indonesian government, however, an area of forest is thought to be degraded if it has lost just ten per cent of its trees – or to put it another way, if 90 per cent is untouched. This is the kind of relatively undamaged forest the minister thinks is worth sacrificing for palm oil, because it’s into these ‘degraded’ areas he intends to push the industry.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. At a local level in both Papua and West Papua (which comprise the Indonesian half of New Guinea), there are some fierce forest defenders in high places. Papua’s Governor Suebu is standing up to distant Jakarta by insisting that if anyone is going to make money from the forests, then they need to be better managed so they aren’t exploited to destruction, and that local Papuans are treated fairly and with respect.

He’s also demanded that all existing logging permits in Papua (many of which will lead to palm oil plantations once the trees are removed) be revoked. Only the national government has the power to do that, but Suebu has taken some pretty solid action in banning the export of logs from his province.

The result is that logging has decreased dramatically. In 2005, 42 timber companies were operating in Papua; this year it’s down to just seven, and in one of the research trips our campaigner Bustar noticed the number of logging ponds (where logs are held so they can be collected by cargo ships) has decreased. No one is going to spend money on logging if there’s nowhere to sell the timber, and without the logging there’s nowhere for the plantations to go. However, Suebu can only do so much and logging does still continue – on the same trip, Bustar saw large cleared areas where he hadn’t expected to find them.

Despite Governor Suebu's efforts to protect Papua's forests, logging still continues © Greenpeace/Rante

Despite Governor Suebu’s efforts to protect Papua’s forests, logging still continues © Greenpeace/Rante

Jakarta is, of course, putting huge pressure on Suebu to lift the export ban but so far he’s holding firm. But rather than leaning on provincial governors, the government would be better off figuring out how it’s going to slash emissions from deforestation by 50 per cent in the next year or so. There’s no indication of how they plan to do this, but something pretty drastic is needed.

Which is exactly why the Esperanza is here. We’re pushing for an immediate moratorium on deforestation in Indonesia to give everyone time to develop the best way to protect the forests permanently, including a financial mechanism which will make the trees more valuable where they are, instead of on a cargo ship. More on this as well in a very short while.

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