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.
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.”
Scott Saulters wasn’t sure if his film had just taken one of the two top prizes at a recent film competition. Although Saulters has been in Taiwan for 15 years and is proficient in Mandarin, the award ceremony for the inaugural “Bi Tian Iann” (眯電影) short film contest was conducted entirely in Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese), a language he can’t speak. “I thought I heard it, but I didn’t want to look too excited,” he says. Despite his limited command of the tongue, Saulter’s entry, Wu Yu Tzu (烏魚子, mullet roe), took first place in the amateur category of the
Since its launch in 2014, the Taiwan Season has increasingly become a “must-see” at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. So, when this year’s three-week Fringe became an early casualty of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Chen Pin-chuan (陳斌全) was determined that the Taiwan Season must continue in some form. Chen, director of the Cultural Division of the Taipei Representative Office in the UK, says that he and Taiwan Season curator and producer Yeh Jih-wen (葉紀紋) had been thinking of ways of growing and adding value to the season anyway. The crisis and the cancellation of the live performances brought those ideas forward as
In the regular drumbeat of arrests of alleged Chinese spies, one case last month stood out. It did not involve the US or another rival of China, but Russia, whose security services accused a prominent arctic scientist of selling classified data on technologies for detecting submarines. Meanwhile a court in Kazakhstan in October convicted the Central Asia nation’s preeminent China specialist of espionage, a move widely interpreted at the time as a warning against increased meddling by the superpower next door. Both men maintain their innocence and if China is spying on Russia, Moscow is surely doing the same. Even so, the fact
A walk down Orchard Road shows just how badly the coronavirus pandemic has hit Singapore’s famed shopping strip. Gone are popular restaurants like Modesto’s, which shut last month after 23 years. Also missing are the queues of Chinese tourists outside Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Malls along the 2.4km stretch, once one of Asia’s top shopping meccas, are dotted with empty stores. On a recent midweek afternoon, the number of shop staff idly dusting shelves or playing with their mobile phones rather than greeting customers is notable. “It’s the worst crisis for Singapore and Orchard Road,” said Kiran Assodani, who has run her