The powerful oil palm industry in Indonesia is clearing orangutan habitat, sparking social conflict with indigenous communities and contributing to global warming

We stared at the slash mark on the tyre of the lightweight Cessna-Caravan aircraft, as the early morning sun made a pale appearance. The pilots insisted the wheel had been in perfect condition the evening before, when they had flown the aircraft into Sampit, a timber port city in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province. It looked like sabotage. “Someone doesn’t want you going up there,” one of them said grimly.

I was accompanying a group of forest campaigners from the NGO Greenpeace, on a planned flyover across parts of Kalimantan, as the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo is called. Greenpeace has spent the last few years furiously campaigning against Indonesia’s palm oil companies, which have been the main drivers of massive deforestation across the once-thickly forested archipelago.

The NGO is currently investigating linkages between the global consumer goods giant, Proctor and Gamble, and companies in its palm oil supply chain that are still involved in active deforestation: clearing orangutan habitat, sparking social conflict with indigenous communities and contributing to global warming. The palm oil industry in Indonesia is hugely powerful. The country is the world’s largest producer of the product, and the sector accounts for 11 per cent of Indonesia’s export earnings, second only to oil and gas.

Eventually, we lurched off the runway on another plane and were away. I looked down and my stomach plunged. This wasn’t the result of turbulence but the vista that had opened up.

Rampant deforestation

Instead of the exuberant, chaotic, tropical forest that the idea of Borneo had always conjured up, I was assaulted by a phalanx of neatly laid out, identical-looking oil palms; rows and rows of them fading into the horizon. There was something mechanical and dystopian about these vast plantations. Forlorn clumps of remaining forest appeared marooned amidst the ocean of oil palms. It was small wonder that Kalimantan’s once-burgeoning orangutan population was now considered critically endangered. Given the widespread habitat destruction that has resulted from logging for timber, pulp and paper, and most specially, the planting of oil palms, the number of Bornean orangutans has halved over the last half century. According to the World Wildlife Fund, orangutan habitat has been slashed by at least 55 per cent in the last 20 years alone. Deforestation in Indonesia is said to be among the highest in the world. Greenpeace says an area equivalent to more than nine Olympic swimming pools is still cut down every minute in the country.

Nonetheless, sustained pressure from consumers and activist organisations has meant that an increasing number of offending corporations have promised to turn over new leaves. Last year was a good one for Indonesia’s forests. The country extended a 2011 moratorium on clearing of primary forests and peatlands by prohibiting the granting of any new concessions to companies for an additional two years. The moratorium does not, however, apply to concessions that have already been granted.

Voluntary pledges made by corporations themselves also made for cheering news. Asia Pulp and Paper, one of Indonesia’s worst forest-felling culprits, announced a no-deforestation policy in early 2013, following a similar promise by its sister company, palm oil giant, Golden Agro Resources (both are owned by Indonesia’s Sinarmas group). In December last year, agribusiness heavyweight, Wilmar, also agreed to an equivalent policy. Adani Wilmar, a joint venture of the Adani Group with Wilmar, is one of India’s largest palm oil importing groups. India in fact overtook China in 2009 to emerge as the number one importer of palm oil and currently accounts for about 19 per cent of the global trade, making Indian consumers complicit in Indonesia’s forest destruction.

As we flew over Central Kalimantan’s decimated landscape, the extent of the damage already done to the forests became clear. Corporates like Wilmar and GAR have already ravaged so much of the forest in their concessions that their pledges to avoid further felling are somewhat empty. The environmental and social costs of Indonesia’s rampant forest destruction are manifold. The country is currently the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, which are responsible for global warming. All of its megafauna is endangered as a result of habitat loss. Microclimate change and increased pollution linked to slash and burn methods of forest clearing are intensifying. Social conflict with indigenous peoples who reside in the forests is common.

We also visited the ramshackle office of the NGO, Alliance for Indigenous Peoples, in Palangkaraya. It was dominated by a white board, which listed recent incidents of social conflict in the Central Kalimantan province. Simpun Sampurna, an activist there, said there have been over 600 conflicts his organisation is aware of over the last few years. A short drive away at the headquarters of another NGO, Save Our Borneo, founder and director Nordin revealed that of the 238 companies with palm oil concessions in Central Kalimantan, only 86 had certification that accredited them with “clean” practices. Corruption was rampant and impunity the norm. Almost no company had ever been prosecuted for illegal forest burning, or even clearing without permits, he claimed.

Later in the day we drove deep into the province’s palm oil concessions to witness first hand the ongoing deforestation linked to two Indonesian companies Wana Catur Jaya Utama, and Karya Makmur Abadi, which are known to be suppliers of palm oil to Proctor and Gamble. Palm oil is a common ingredient in the detergents, shampoos, cosmetics and other household goods that the company manufactures. Greenpeace’s new campaign aims to pressure P&G into committing to more sustainable sourcing, something they have already achieved with the likes of Unilever, Nestlé and L’Oréal.

Dubious categories

Over the course of two days, we caught excavating machines in the act of felling trees. Elsewhere, eviscerated forests had given way to charred debris. These were secondary forests, less pristine and lacking the full canopy ceiling of primary forests. They were therefore not protected by the Indonesian government’s moratorium, and the logging we observed was legal. But environmentalists say that the biggest lacuna of the moratorium is precisely that it does not include all forests. They maintain that the distinction between primary and secondary forests is often dubious or misused.

Indonesia’s palm oil industry has rejected Greenpeace’s claims, particularly the links it draws between the deforestation carried out by P&G suppliers and the destruction of orangutan habitat. The Jakarta Globe newspaper quoted Tungkot Sipayung, head of legal affairs and advocacy at the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association, as asserting that since no protected (primary) forests had been felled, “it was impossible to kill endangered species.”

But as I flew over Kalimantan for three hours, what became amply clear was that the semantic wrangling over the taxonomy of forests aside, much of the island was today a monoculture of palm oil plantations. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that humanity had traded cheap cooking oil for orangutans.

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