May 16, 2011
The following is the original version of an editorial, titled Will Indonesia lose the next oil palm?, that appeared today in the Jakarta Post.
Indonesian rainforest in Borneo. Photo by Rhett Butler, March 2011
Its disappearance triggered a frantic scramble to locate further specimens. Finally, a tree collected 100 years earlier was located in Singapore's Botanical Garden. Subsequent studies revealed its bioactive compound, canalolide A, to show great potential in treating AIDS. An anti-HIV drug made from the compound is now nearing clinical trials. It could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year and help improve the lives of millions of people.
Deforestation in West Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo
After all, it is not coal mines, acacia pulp plantations, and oil palm estates that make Indonesia unique — it is biodiversity and cultural heritage, neither of which can be replaced. This is important because both Indonesia's ecological and cultural richness are fast disappearing, casualties of a Western development model that mostly benefits local elites and outside interests and run roughshod over traditional resource management and the livelihoods they enable. Sure, converting thousand-year-old rainforest into cash crops yields some short-term profits, but what is the long-term strategy? What happens to palm oil prices if Brazil makes good on its plan to establish more than 5 million hectares of oil palm plantations on non-forest land? Will the most attractive markets discriminate against palm oil that is produced in ways that result in social conflict and environmental degradation?
Deforestation in Kalimantan and Sumatra
These shifts are also happening outside of Indonesia. In Brazil, soy producers and cattle ranchers — who account for the vast majority of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon — have recently implemented safeguards after protests from some of their largest customers. Brazil's cattle industry — the largest in the world — was brought to its knees virtually overnight when Walmart, Nike, and Adidas said they didn't want their leather and beef tainted by deforestation and labor abuses. Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that Brazil has been able to grow its economy while cutting deforestation — since 2004 Brazil's annual deforestation rate in the Amazon has fallen 80 percent while its per capita GDP has surged nearly 40 percent.
Deforestation in West Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo
Despite these trends, Indonesia has been slow to officially define its moratorium on new forest concessions. What's the hold-up? Put simply, the vested interests that have long taken advantage of a system that enriches them at the expense of most Indonesians are fighting to maintain the status quo. Some may be paying lip-service to the moratorium, but behind closed doors they continue to push for business as usual. In some cases they have gone as far as to hire foreign consultants like Alan Oxley of World Growth International to concoct dubious reports to defend a Western (non-Indonesian) development model that depends on unsustainable resource extraction and mainly benefits big companies rather than generating government revenues or improving the lives of Indonesian citizens and communities.
We've read the claims: implementing the moratorium will cost 3.5 million new jobs a year and throw millions more into poverty. But has anyone actually looked at the data? Indonesia's forestry sector does not create anywhere near 3.5 million new jobs per year. The entire Indonesian economy generated 2.5 million new jobs in 2010 and the forest products and plantation industries account for less than 6 percent of the economy, according to government data. If anything, as Indonesia's economy matures and modernizes, forestry will continue to decline in significance as a growth engine for the economy—services and knowledge, not bulk commodities, will be drivers of growth. Besides, the moratorium aims to boost productivity on existing lands and restore productivity to degraded lands, not abandon growth.
Aerial views of West Papua, Indonesian New Guinea. Photos by Rhett Butler in August 2010.
Finally, let’s not forgot how much Mother Nature offers Indonesia. According to the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, an E.U.-backed research initiative, nearly 100 million Indonesians are dependent on ecosystem services for things like food, clean air and water, housing, and fuel. Ecosystem services account for 2 percent of Indonesia’s GDP — larger than the entire forestry sector — and 75 percent of GDP for Indonesia’s rural poor, a bigger lever for poverty alleviation than plantation agriculture and logging combined.
Biodiversity itself also has value. Remember that the oil palm is a product of rainforest biodiversity — it originated in the forests of West Africa. But will continued deforestation destroy the next potential oil palm or the next anti-HIV drug before it is discovered?
Will Indonesia turn away from what truly makes it unique—its rich cultural heritage and biodiversity—to mimic the mistakes in the Western developmental model, or will it be a part of developing a new global model for combining prosperity with sustainability?
It's up to Indonesians to decide.
7 conglomerates control 9M ha of land in Indonesia
(05/05/2011) Efforts to slow deforestation in Indonesia should include curtailing further expansion of forestry holdings by giant conglomerates, says an Indonesian activist group. Analyzing data from the Ministry of Forest's Production Forest Utilization Quarterly Report, Jakarta-based Greenomics-Indonesia found that seven conglomerates in Indonesia control more than 9 million hectares of land, including large forest concessions that will likely be exempt from any moratorium on forest clearing established under the country's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) program. The extent of holdings could complicate Indonesia's efforts to reduce emissions from logging and plantation development.
Losses from deforestation top $36 billion in Indonesian Borneo
(04/29/2011) Illegal forest conversion by mining and plantation companies in Indonesian Borneo has cost the state $36 billion according to a Forest Ministry official.
Indonesian official: REDD+ forest conservation plan need not limit growth of palm oil industry
(04/29/2011) Indonesia's low carbon development strategy will not impede the palm oil industry's growth said a key Indonesian climate official during a meeting with leaders from the country's palm oil industry. During a meeting on Thursday, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's REDD+ Task Force, asked industry leaders for their input on the government's effort to shift oil palm expansion to degraded non-forest land.
Election cycle linked to deforestation rate in Indonesia
(04/14/2011) Increased fragmentation of political jurisdictions and the election cycle contribute to Indonesia's high deforestation rate according to analysis published by researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and South Dakota State University (SDSU). The research confirms the observation that Indonesian politicians in forest-rich districts seem repay their election debts by granting forest concessions.
Indonesia can meet low carbon goals without sacrificing economic growth, says UK report
(04/14/2011) Indonesia can meet its low carbon development goals without sacrificing economic growth, reports an assessment commissioned by the British government.
New World Growth report contains 'false and misleading' information
(03/31/2011) A new report from World Growth International, a lobby group for industrial forestry interests, contains 'false and misleading' information on the economic impact of reducing Indonesia's deforestation rate, says an Indonesian environmental group. The report, released today, claims that reducing deforestation in Indonesia will cost the country 3.5 million jobs annually by slowing expansion in the forestry sector.
Will Indonesia's big REDD rainforest deal work?
(12/28/2010) Flying in a plane over the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea, rainforest stretches like a sea of green, broken only by rugged mountain ranges and winding rivers. The broccoli-like canopy shows little sign of human influence. But as you near Jayapura, the provincial capital of Papua, the tree cover becomes patchier—a sign of logging—and red scars from mining appear before giving way to the monotonous dark green of oil palm plantations and finally grasslands and urban areas. The scene is not unique to Indonesian New Guinea; it has been repeated across the world's largest archipelago for decades, partly a consequence of agricultural expansion by small farmers, but increasingly a product of extractive industries, especially the logging, plantation, and mining sectors. Papua, in fact, is Indonesia's last frontier and therefore represents two diverging options for the country's development path: continued deforestation and degradation of forests under a business-as-usual approach or a shift toward a fundamentally different and unproven model based on greater transparency and careful stewardship of its forest resources.