Southeast Asian nations are gearing up for a palm oil boom as interest in biofuels soars, but activists warn the crop may not satisfy a global thirst for green, clean energy and would require chopping further into forests.
They caution that oil palm plantations require massive swathes of land -- either what's left of the region's disappearing forests, denuded plots that would be better off reforested, or land critical to supporting local people.
Governments and companies have been scrambling to cash in since palm oil prices jumped last year amid spiking demand from China, India and Europe, where biofuels should comprise 10 percent of motor fuels by 2020.
Indonesia has launched a particularly ambitious biofuels expansion program, which aims to source 17 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2025.
Evita Herawati, an assistant to Indonesia's minister of energy, said 5.5 million hectares will be set aside for biofuel plantations by 2010, 1.5 million hectares of which are for oil palm.
The main objective is "to create jobs and alleviate poverty," with some 3.5 million new jobs being eyed by 2010.
"A lot of forest has been cut down but they didn't use it at all. We would like to use it for this program," she said, adding that so far 58 deals worth a total of US$12.4 billion have been signed with companies.
She estimated that just in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo island, about 5.5 million hectares are available for use -- an area far larger than Denmark and a bit smaller than Sri Lanka. Nine million additional hectares are available elsewhere, Herawati said.
The issue of where the land will come from worries activists, who point out that much of Indonesia's peatland forests have already been destroyed, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide.
Rully Syumanda, of Indonesia's environmental watchdog Walhi, said proposing palm oil plantations has been used in recent years in Indonesia "as a pretext to clear land and take the more valuable logs."
He estimates that nearly 17 million hectares of Indonesia's forests have been cleared ostensibly for oil palm plantations since the 1960s, but only 6 million hectares have been cultivated.
Though he concedes that the government is now making efforts to reforest, catch offenders and audit the industry, Syumanda said these were "insignificant compared to the damage that is being inflicted on the environment."
Rudi Lumuru, from Sawit Watch, an industry monitor, meanwhile said much of this "empty" land is actually used by local people.
He reckons more than 500 communities have been embroiled in conflicts with more than 100 palm oil companies, typically from Malaysia.
"This land has been used since a long time ago by the people. They live on the land, they grow on the land," he said. "The government says people can make money, but it's about transition of culture. The culture of the farmers, it's rice, coffee, cocoa -- it's not palm oil."
While compensation payments may be meted out, they end up meager thanks to endemic corruption, he said.
The Indonesian industry says it is cleaning up its act.
"The industry now is trying to avoid destroying land," said Derom Bangun, executive chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Association. "Companies no longer clear land by burning or in ways that harm the environment or wildlife."