Tag Archives: palm oil plantations

How Rivers Die

Kapuas river: Indonesia

Kapuas, Indonesia’s longest river support somes 3m people…One reason that the water is so murky is deforestation. Since the 1970s logging has enriched locals while stripping away the vegetation that held the soil in place. The Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) found that between 1973 and 2010 over 100,000 square kilometres of forest was lost on Kalimantan, or a third of the original coverage. A national moratorium that began in 2011 has done little to still the axes. As a result, torrential tropical rains wash lots of loose earth into the Kapuas.

Illegal gold-mining compounds the problem. Locals tear up the riverbed with diggers or blast the banks with high-pressure hoses, then sieve the mud for gold. Mercury, which the miners use to separate gold from sediment, but which is poisonous to humans and fish alike, leaks into the river.

The riverbank is punctuated with corrugated-iron towers, which emit birdsong from loudspeakers. These are designed to lure swiftlets, who make their nests with saliva. The nests of swiftlets  are considered a delicacy and aphrodisiac by many Chinese.* Deane, a shop owner, built his tower last December after seeing others do the same. He sells the nests to a wholesaler for about 15m rupiah ($1,025) a kilogram…

In Kapuas Hulu, an upstream district, half the population rely on the river for drinking water. A quarter have no toilet. Even where bathrooms do exist along the river, they are often floating cubicles with a hole in the floorboards. Cows and goats, living in wooden riverside cages, also defecate straight into the Kapuas

The Kapuas passes through seven districts. Midstream ones, such as Sintang and Sanggau, earn hefty tax revenues by encouraging palm-oil plantations. But downstream districts suffer from the resulting silt, traffic and run-off without receiving any of the benefits. The same problem occurs at a village level. Mr Hadi says that fishing by sprinkling poisonous leaves on the water (the stricken fish float to the surface) is forbidden but other village heads do not enforce the rules…

A study by CIFOR on the income of villagers living near the Kapuas river found that the best-paid palm-plantation workers earned 50% more than the most successful fishermen. (Gold miners made three times as much—and spent more on education.)…But the environmental damage is plain to see. The river here is brown, clouded by silt. A study published in 2016 found that levels of phosphates in the water, from fertilisers and villagers washing themselves with soap, are highest near urban areas and palm plantations.

Down in Pontianak, the river water is darker still, occasionally brightened by oil slicks. Water bottles and instant-noodle packets cling together to form plastic islands.

Excerpts from  Indonesia’s Longest River,  Economist, Aug. 25, 2018

*According to Wikipedia: Authentic bird’s-nest soup is made from nests of some species of swiftlet.  Instead of twigs, feathers and straw, these swiftlets make their nest only from strands of their gummy saliva, which hardens when exposed to air. Once the nests are harvested, they are cleaned and sold to restaurants. Eating swiftlet nest material is believed to help maintain skin tone, balance qi (“life energy”) and reinforce the immune system… (Dictionary of Traditional Chinese Medicine, The History of Chinese Medicine and the Nutrition Table).

Target Practice on Orangutans

Captive Orangutan image from wikipedia

Estimating the number of orangutans is difficult. Researchers have to extrapolate from the number of nests observed. (The apes build new ones to sleep in each night.) A new study published in Current Biology finds that the number of orangutans on Borneo, an island divided between Indonesia and Malaysia, declined by some 148,000 between 1999 and 2015, leaving fewer than 100,000. Within the next 30 years, another 45,000 could disappear. The decline has been steepest, naturally, in areas where the jungle has been razed to plant palm-oil trees. But it is areas that are still forested that account for most of the fall in the orangutan population. This suggests that hunting and crueller activities—carcasses have been found maimed and riddled with airgun pellets—are also taking a bloody toll, says one of the study’s authors, Maria Voigt of the Max Planck Institute, a research organisation in Germany…

Local officials still push for more palm-oil plantations, mines and roads. But tourism in Sumatra’s Gunung-Leuser National Park shows the value of leaving the jungle, and its inhabitants, alone. A night and two days of climbing and crawling in search of orangutans can cost a visitor around $100…Eco-tourism can benefit orangutans, too, if controlled. But tourists often get too close to the animals, risking the transmission of disease, or leave rubbish in the forest…

Excerpts from Orangutans: Money Swinging from Trees, Economost, Feb. 24, at 2018, at 30

All for the Oil: forest fires

Indonesia forest fire. image from wikipedia

…In 2015 a dry spell caused by the El Niño weather pattern made Indonesia’s forest fires  especially severe. Smoke settled over Singapore for months and even reached Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. At least 2m hectares of forest were burned. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds of thousands sickened. For much of October 2015 greenhouse gases released by those fires exceeded the emissions of the entire American economy. The losses over five months of fires amounted to around 2% of the country’s GDP…[The event has labeled  the 2015 Southeast Asian haze]

Between 2001 and 2014, Indonesia lost 18.5m hectares of tree cover—an area more than twice the size of Ireland. In 2014 Indonesia overtook Brazil to become the world’s biggest deforester.

One of the reasons for those forest fires is economic. The country produces well over half the world’s palm oil, a commodity used in cooking and cosmetics, as a food additive and as a biofuel. It accounts for around 4.5% of Indonesia’s GDP, and demand is still rising. To meet it, Indonesian farmers set fires to clear forest and make way for new plantations. Often these forests grow on peatlands, which store carbon from decayed organic matter; in tropical regions these hold up to ten times as much carbon as surface soil. Draining peatlands releases all of that carbon. The peat also becomes a fuel, so it is not just felled trees that are burning but the ground itself.

But politics also plays a part. … The president declared a moratorium on peatland-development licences and called for peat forests to be restored, even as his agriculture minister pointed out that burned peatland can be used for corn and soyabean planting….

Civil-society groups have had some success. At least 188 Indonesian palm-oil companies have made some sort of sustainability pledge, including five large multinational firms that in 2014 signed the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), which commits them to avoiding deforestation and planting oil palms on peatland. Together those five firms account for 80% of Indonesia’s palm-oil exports.All the same, deforestation continues. Perversely, it may even have increased temporarily, as companies cleared as much land as they could before the agreement took effect. Besides, opaque supply chains allow companies to buy palm oil from suppliers not bound by IPOP.

Forests: A world on fire, Economist Special Report on Indonesia, Feb. 27, 2016

Palm Oil Industry: environmental and human impacts

Indonesia’s largest palm oil company, Sinar Mas, ran into trouble recently when communities in Liberia complained about a 33,000 ha. operation being developed on their lands by its indirectly-owned subsidiary, Golden Veroleum in Butaw District, Sinoe County. Alfred Brownell, the lawyer from Green Advocates representing the Kru tribes impacted by the project who is attending the 10th Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) being held in Singapore this week noted:

Golden Veroleum is in clear violation of the RSPO’s New Planting Procedure as it has not advertised its plans to clear and plant oil palms and carry out and publicise a High Conservation Value Assessment in advance of expanding its operations. Under the RSPO procedure, the company should now cease clearance until due process is followed. The villagers are concerned that their lands are being taken without their fully informed or free consent.

This is the second palm oil development involving a prominent RSPO member to run into controversy in Liberia. Last year, a subsidiary of Malaysia’s largest palm oil consortium, Sime Darby, was criticised for expanding its operations without respecting local peoples’ rights. The company was in the early stages of developing a 220,000 ha. operation but was halted in its tracks by complaints, which, to its credit, the company has responded to by entering into dialogue with the communities.

The spotlight is now on two large palm oil operations in Cameroon. One is planned by a company called BioPalm, a subsidiary of India-based corporation Siva Group which is marking out its planned operations without consultation on the lands of the Bagyeli “Pygmies” in Océan Département in western Cameroon. The company claims to be an RSPO member but does not show up on the RSPO’s membership lists. Messe Venant, Project Coordinator of the community-based indigenous NGO Okani says:  As the affected Bagyeli communities have told us, the forest is their memory. If they lose it, they lose their past, their present and their future. They will no longer be Bagyeli. To destroy the forest is to reduce them to nothingness.

Another palm oil developer is SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon PLC (SGSOC), owned by Herakles Farms from the USA and an affiliate of Herakles Capital, which is also involved in the telecommunications, energy, infrastructure, mining and agro-industrial sectors in Africa. SGSOC is developing an oil palm plantation further north in Cameroon, but has also run into sustained opposition from local communities and concerned NGOs and has announced it will pull out of the RSPO.

Other cases are highlighted in a searching review of 15 companies’ operations carried out by the Forest Peoples Programme and SawitWatch with a consortium of other NGOs and community organisations in Liberia, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

One case examined is the operation being developed by Genting Plantations, a client of HSBC, and a subsidiary of the vast Genting group which runs a casino, hotel and property empire in Malaysia. Both companies are prominent RSPO members. Genting is now in a protracted land dispute with the Dusun and Sungai peoples in Tongod District in Sabah over the imposition of the oil palm plantation. Leonard Alaza representing the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia or Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS) at the 10th Roundtable of the RSPO underway in Singapore, says:  The communities have been objecting to this plantation since 2000 and filed a court case 10 years ago asking the court to recognise their rights and freeze the company’s expansion. But instead of recognising our rights, as the RSPO standard requires, the company has been contesting even the admissibility of our case and meanwhile has taken over and planted all the disputed lands.

Excerpt from Press Release of Forest Peoples Programme, New oil palm land grabs exposed: Asian palm oil companies run into trouble in Africa, Nov. 1, 2012