The Western focus on saving the endangered Borneo orang-utan from palm oil plantations overlooks the industry’s effect on indigenous communities and the climate change impact of the loss of peat forests. By James Norman.

Palm oil plantations displace more than orang-utans

Fighting a fire on peat forest land in Kuala Kapuas, Central Kalimantan.
Fighting a fire on peat forest land in Kuala Kapuas, Central Kalimantan.
Credit: Bay Ismoyo / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

In Indonesia early last month, Australian trade minister Steve Ciobo made the Australian government’s position on palm oil exports crystal clear. Addressing a group of 120 regional business leaders, Ciobo said there were “no barriers on palm oil” exports from Indonesia.

When pressed on the impacts of palm oil on Indonesian forests he added: “In terms of palm oil, Indonesia obviously produces palm oil and they’ve got domestic laws that they have in place in relation to that, and there’s also of course a global movement where people will look at sustainability.” Ciobo said his sole focus was on removing tariff and non-tariff measures that were a hindrance to trade and investment.

Ciobo’s comments come at the same time as reports that orang-utans are being wiped out by widespread deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia in order to make room for palm oil plantations. They also come in the context of a failed history of Australian attempts to help preserve Kalimantan’s forests through poorly managed and now abandoned carbon abatement schemes.

Palm oil is so common in Western consumer products that it is difficult to avoid – it’s the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet and an ingredient in many brands of shampoo, toothpaste, lipstick and everyday food products. Malaysia and Indonesia produce 80 per cent of the world’s palm oil, but its production means the clearing of vast swaths of verdant rainforests, specifically peat forests.

In recent years, peat forests have been recognised as essential in containing carbon emissions because these unique ecosystems absorb carbon as new vegetation grows, operating as carbon sinks. They are oxygen-poor, soggy environments where decomposing plant material causes peat to form over time, releasing carbon as methane rather than carbon dioxide.

In fact, peat forests contain more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem in the world. However, in the past 25 years more than 30 million hectares of forests in Indonesia alone have disappeared, largely to make way for palm oil plantations. This has led the International Union for Conservation of Nature to recently list the Borneo orang-utan population as endangered, along with the Sumatran orang-utan. According to International Animal Rescue chief Alan Knight, on its current trajectory the entire population will be wiped out within the decade.

Subsequently, as the importance of peat forests as orang-utan habitat is recognised, several large conservation and restorations projects involving international environmental groups have started. In 2009, Australia added to that pool through the Kalimantan Forest Carbon Partnership and its pilot REDD project.

At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Bali in 2007, REDD – which stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries” – was hailed as one of the key breakthroughs when foreign minister Alexander Downer and then Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono launched the Kalimantan Forest Carbon Partnership (KFCP) pilot. It was later championed by Kevin Rudd as central to a $100 million Indonesian–Australian partnership that aimed to protect and restore peat swamp forest as carbon sinks.

REDD schemes became a central plank of international climate negotiations, with some observers, including Lord Nicholas Stern, arguing that the schemes offered the single best opportunity for cost-effective and immediate reductions in greenhouse emissions. However, even before it started, the project was criticised by indigenous groups in Indonesia for failing to take into account the human rights of the local indigenous tribes.

“Ten years ago, there was a huge amount of optimism about REDD in Indonesia,” says Chris Lang, who runs the website REDD-Monitor, which has reported on issues relating to tropical forests and climate change since 2008. “After several years of hype, nothing happened on the ground to protect the forests, or to support indigenous peoples’ rights. REDD has not lived up to its promise of saving Indonesia’s rainforests, and it has been a dangerous distraction from the urgent need to address deforestation and climate change.”

The KFCP, which Australia funded, failed to meet any of its key targets. According to a 2012 report by Australian National University academics Erik Olbrei and Stephen Howes, only 50,000 trees had been planted from the original target of 100 million, and none of the peat forests had been reflooded despite a target to reflood 200,000 hectares. Australia’s much vaunted contribution to the Indonesian REDD scheme was quietly abandoned in 2013 and removed from the AusAID budget with few of its milestones met.

But according to indigenous groups working on the ground in Kalimantan, the impacts of these failed efforts are still being felt today. Arie Rompas, director for the Central Kalimantan province of Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (WALHI), an environmental organisation that encourages traditional conservation, tells The Saturday Paper that the REDD projects Australia funded have ended “tragically” for his people.

“In Central Kalimantan, where these pilot projects were conducted ... the project was not able to demonstrate significant evidence how the project was able to reduce emissions from deforestation,” Rompas says. “Instead, it has caused conflicts among the community, mutual suspicion and corruption at the local level because of the physical project that is not transparent. Moreover, the threat to community rights, including the prohibition of access to the project area and the threat of livelihood for the local community, the Dayak Ngaju, who rely on forests as a source of livelihood.”

Local and international observers have also criticised the conservation model being embraced by orang-utan conservation groups including Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) as too focused on fundraising and not listening to the advice of the local indigenous peoples. “Groups like BOS have a faulty conservation model,” according to Norhadie Karben of Mantangai Hulu, one of the indigenous Dayak villages where Australia ran a REDD project.

“The Dayak community has suffered massive losses and sustained severe hardships from the destruction of our peat forests from the time of the mega-rice project. BOS then took away the last remaining primary peat forests for its orang-utan sanctuary, where our sacred customary forest lies,” he says.

“We have never been consulted about this, let alone given permission, and we have been kept away from our own sacred forest which we have ancestral linkages with and customary rights towards. Ironically, we have been proactively restoring the damaged peatland whilst adapting to the destruction through sustainable farming practices with support from local groups based on the wisdom of our ancestors and new skills and knowledge.”

Arie Rompas says the loss of orang-utan populations is just one of the problems resulting from the development of palm oil plantations, but the underlying issues of forest loss and the impacts on the human rights of the indigenous people are largely ignored by Western-based conservation groups that focus on fundraising related to orang-utan survival.

“Many conservation organisations make this momentum ‘conservation business’ where they try to present an orang-utan rescue program,” he says, “but it is not concerned with the destruction of the forest itself.”

Rompas points out that the palm oil plantations have led to further problems for his people. Because the peatland forests are made up primarily of organic matter slowly decaying in the waterlogged environment, once this water is drained and the land cleared it becomes highly susceptible to forest fires that can burn for months.

He says that in 2015 forest fires lit by plantation farmers caused massive smoke hazes over his homeland. “This caused a very broad catastrophe where forest fires and haze have threatened millions of people living in Sumatra and Kalimantan.”

A report from Harvard and Columbia universities stated that these fires had resulted in a “killer haze” that caused more than 100,000 premature deaths and the loss of 2.3 million hectares of peat forests in Indonesia. These fires occurred mainly in Sumatra and Borneo, with monsoon winds blowing the haze over Singapore and Malaysia.

Rompas says many indigenous people are wrongly punished for causing these fires, and are forced into open fields for agricultural activities where they operate in fear. “It ultimately threatens their security of food supply,” he says.

Cam Walker, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Australia, tells The Saturday Paper that in the context of widespread and well-documented systemic problems surrounding the palm oil industry in Indonesia, Steve Ciobo’s assertions that Australia will seek to keep trade exports open and rely only on sustainable farmers are “ridiculous”.

“There are many well-documented problems associated with palm oil production in Indonesia, including climate change impacts, habitat destruction and human rights abuses,” he said. “These constitute significant barriers to the further development of the industry.”

Chris Lang went further: “Palm oil plantations have had a devastating impact on Indonesia’s forests and on the livelihoods of indigenous peoples who live in the forests. The palm oil industry is still expanding in Indonesia and still destroying forest. It seems that both Indonesia and Australia are happy to turn a blind eye to this destruction.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 1, 2017 as "Palm abhor".

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