Thu, Sep 24, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Indonesia takes the chainsaw to illegal palm oil plantations

The lucrative cash crop’s march into protected areas is causing massive deforestation that increases Indonesia’s carbon emissions and threatens already endangered wildlife

By Gillian Murdoch  /  REUTERS , ACEH, INDONESIA


For decades, the roar of the chainsaw has meant one thing in Indonesia’s national parks: illegal loggers ripping down the rainforest.

Now, the whirring is part of a fight back to cut out illegal palm oil from the international supply chain and slow the deforestation that has pushed Indonesia’s carbon emissions sky high, threatening the destruction of some of the world’s most ecologically important tropical forests and their animals.

In the country’s first, symbolic action to stop the lucrative crop’s march into protected lands a chainsaw-wielding alliance led by the Aceh Conservation Agency, Acehnese NGOs, and police teams are sweeping tens of thousands of hectares of illegal palm from the 2.5 million hectare Leuser Ecosystem.

“Plantation speculators, developers, whatever you want to call them, have moved in further and further,” said Mike Griffiths of the Aceh Conservation Agency, which was created by Aceh Governor Yusuf Irwandi to manage Leuser in 2006, a year after the province at Sumatra’s northern tip won greater autonomy from Jakarta.

“They do it by fait accompli ... Go in, knock the trees down and plant, and all of a sudden the local perception is that you own it. It’s Wild West stuff.”

Planting a cash crop used in some of the world’s best-known brands of chocolate, crisps and soaps inside legally-protected forests and national parks may seem a high-risk strategy.

But with much legal land already allocated, lax law enforcement, large untapped work forces of villagers living inside remote rainforests and high crude palm oil prices, such illegal conversions make sense to many.

“The forest is seen as a green tangle with little real use and filled with dangerous animals and diseases,” explained Jutta Poetz, Biodiversity Coordinator at industry environmental standards body the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

“If this green tangle can be converted into something profitable, with the dangers largely removed, isn’t that good? Plantations will develop the country, create jobs and improve people’s lives. This appears to be the prevailing sentiment in Southeast Asia.”

One year after Indonesia overtook Malaysia as the world’s top palm oil producer, hundreds of illegal plantations are thought to riddle its reserves.

A 2007 UN report found forest conversion for palm oil plantations was the country’s leading cause of deforestation, with illegal oil palm, illegal logging and illegal land clearances by fire occurring inside 37 of 41 national parks.

Leuser, Sumatra’s largest rainforest expanse, and one of the last refuges for endangered Sumatran tigers, elephants, orangutan and rhinos, was one of the worst affected, it said.

Industry bodies, such as the Indonesian Palm Oil Association, insist all plantations follow government regulations, and any found playing fast and loose with the rules are targets.

“We support that illegal oil palm plantations have been cleared — if they do not follow all the regulations,” said Fadhil Hasan, Executive Director of the Palm Oil Association.

The Leuser chainsaw sting evicted eleven illegal estates covering 12,000 hectares, a fraction of the at least 50 other illegal estates the Aceh Conservation Agency estimates are in the reserve.

NGOs in Aceh say corruption greases the wheels of the plantation concession system. Officials allegedly pocket millions of rupiah for issuing non-binding “recommendations” to companies lacking official permits, and fail to enforce laws stipulating ten years’ jail and a US$500,000 fine for planting in parks.

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