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

Forestry officials in the area say confusion, rather than corruption, is the problem.

Conflicting maps, clashing tenure claims, and overlapping authorities mean locals, district chiefs, companies and government officials may not be aware of exact park boundaries, even in UNESCO-listed World Heritage rainforests such as Leuser.

“The boundaries do not match reality in the field,” said Syahyahri, head of Aceh Tamiang Forestry Department.

“Villagers don’t know who the forest belongs to. They may not have seen the maps. We are gathering data for making the boundaries now.”

Leuser’s regenerating forests will form a corridor connecting two otherwise non-viable elephant herds, which became separated by the sea of illegal palm over the last decade said Rudi H. Putra, Aceh Conservation Agency conservation manager.

But keeping the high-yielding crop out will take vigilance.

“The problem is protecting the forest,” he said. “Growing oil palm is easy.”

As well as planting in parks, Indonesia’s oil palm industry has been accused of converting forests on carbon-rich peatlands more than 2m deep, and setting fires to clear land.

The Indonesian Palm Oil Association denies knowledge of these illegal activities, which not only harm the industry’s reputation, but also release billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

While the companies caught in Leuser were domestic, rather than international players, confusion and illegality seeps upwards into the global supply chain.

Blended together at mills and shipped overseas, legal and illegal oils flow into a myriad of products such as chocolate, shampoos, soaps and biofuels, leaving multinational end-users, and consumers, exposed to the risk of illegal ingredients.

While the high price of segregating oils means even Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil-certified products cannot guarantee illegal oils are excluded, concerns over governance problems, and the crops environmental and social impacts, are already hitting profits.

Late last month, the World Bank’s private finance arm, the International Finance Corp, which has US$132 million invested in palm oil projects, suspended all palm-related investments, because of complaints about plantations’ dubious licensing, land-rights conflicts and illegal logging activities.

The same month Cadbury New Zealand pulled palm oil from its milk chocolate products, after consumer protests over the crop’s role in rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Back in Aceh, the Aceh Conser-vation Agency and police teams

hope their lead can be followed in other areas.

Felling illegal palm will both save forests, and safeguard the industry’s long-term financial security by weeding out cowboys, said Hariyanta, police chief of Aceh Tamiang district.

“The local people only get a day’s food from a day’s work on the illegal plantations, but the companies get so much money,” said Hariyanta, who like many Indonesians, goes by one name.

“That’s why we go after the companies.”

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