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Palm oil plantations, coal mines linked to deadly Indonesia flood

Flooding in Tanah Laut district, South Kalimantan province, Indonesia, in January 2021. Image courtesy of Tanah Laut Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD).

  • Environmentalists have attributed recent heavy floods in southern Indonesian Borneo to widespread deforestation for oil palm plantations and coal mines.
  • An analysis by Indonesia’s space agency shows an area of forest twice the size of London was cleared in the past decade in the watershed area of the Barito River in South Kalimantan province.
  • During the same period, plantations spanning twice the size of Los Angeles have been established in the watershed area.
  • Activists have called for a sweeping review of licenses as well as rehabilitation of degraded areas in the region.

JAKARTA — Recent floods that inundated large areas of the southern part of Indonesian Borneo might have been exacerbated by massive deforestation for oil palm plantations and coal mines, activists say.

Heavy rains over the course of several days in early January battered the province of South Kalimantan, causing the Barito and other rivers to overflow. Floodwaters, in some areas as high as 3 meters (10 feet), forced the displacement of more than 112,000 people and claimed at least 21 lives. Nearly 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres) have been affected.

President Joko Widodo, during a visit to the affected district of Banjar, attributed the disaster to the heavy and sustained rainfall. But environmentalists say the rapid loss of forest in the region in recent decades contributed to the scale of the flooding.

An area twice the size of London has been deforested in the Barito River’s watershed over the past 10 years, according to data from the Indonesian space agency, LAPAN. More than half of the 322,000 hectares (800,000 acres) cleared comprised primary and secondary forest and scrubland.

A separate analysis of satellite imagery by Greenpeace shows 304,000 hectares (750,000 acres) of forest lost in South Kalimantan’s watershed areas between 2001 and 2019. It shows the Barito watershed now has less than half of its original forest cover, while the watershed of another river in the province, the Maluka, has less than 1% of its forest cover remaining.

“It shows the carrying capacity of the forests in that region has drastically decreased,” Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Arie Rompas said.

Trees hold the soil in place, preventing erosion that results in heavy silting of rivers during rains. Silting makes rivers shallower, decreasing their water flow rate and making it more likely that they will overflow in the event of heavy rains.

The country’s disaster mitigation agency, the BNPB, has called for further studies to determine the cause of the South Kalimantan flooding.

“We also need to involve the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in [analyzing] the management of river areas and spatial planning,” BNPB disaster data, information and communications department head Raditya Jati said.

A map and images of flooded areas in South Kalimantan province, Indonesia, in January 2021. Image courtesy of the Ministry of Environment and Ministry.

Palm oil

LAPAN analysis of satellite imagery shows 219,000 hectares (541,000 acres), an area nearly twice the size of Los Angeles, of new plantations established in the Barito River’s watershed in the past decade. In total, plantations cover 650,000 hectares (1.6 million acres), occupying 14% of the Barito’s watershed of 4.5 million hectares (11.1 million acres), according to LAPAN’s remote-sensing division head, Rokhis Khomarudin.

He said the analysis could provide an explanation of the possible cause of the recent flooding.

“We understand that plantations are related to the economy, but the environmental aspect has to be paid attention to,” Rokhis said.

However, the analysis hasn’t identified the type of the crops being cultivated in the area.

“Because the data is from mid-resolution satellite data, [we] haven’t been able to determine [whether the plantations are] oil palm or other plantations,” Rokhis said.

There’s conflicting data on the true extent of oil palm plantations in South Kalimantan. The Agriculture Ministry identifies 564,632 hectares (1.4 million acres) of oil palm plantations in the province as of 2020. The Central Statistics Agency, BPS, lists 424,932 hectares (1.05 million acres) as of 2018.

Half of the plantation area, 227,791 hectares (562,884 acres), is owned or controlled by the 25 largest agribusiness conglomerates in Indonesia, according to a 2019 report by TuK Indonesia, an NGO that advocates for social justice in the agribusiness sector.

Among these conglomerates are Jardine Matheson Group, Triputra Group and Sinar Mas Group, which control 61,932 hectares (153,037 acres), 49,500 hectares (122,300 acres) and 48,741 hectares (120,442 acres) of oil palm concessions respectively, the report shows.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s largest green group, says it’s clear that South Kalimantan is in an ecological crisis driven by unbridled deforestation.

Half of South Kalimantan’s total area of 3.7 million hectares (9.1 million acres) has been parceled off to the palm oil industry and the mining industry.

“Indeed, these floods are strongly suspected to be caused by the ecosystems that have lost their carrying capacity,” Walhi executive director Nur Hidayati said. “So when there is extreme weather, the carrying capacity collapses and causes disasters.”

Walhi South Kalimantan chapter head Kisworo Dwi Cahyono said the destruction of natural ecosystems in the upstream areas of the province’s rivers leads to flooding downstream.

“So this is [caused by] a disarray in the management of the environment and natural resources, and then the degradation of environmental carrying capacity,” he said.

Data from Global Forest Watch show that oil palm is not the only crop that might have contributed to deforestation in the region. In Hulu Sungai Tengah district, where 64,400 people were affected by the flooding, mixed fruit plantations occupy the largest span of plantation area, at 4,000 hectares (9,900 acres), while oil palms occupy only 200 hectares (500 acres).

In Banjar district, where floods displaced more than 51,000 people, rubber trees are the dominant crop, covering 38,500 hectares (95,100 acres), followed by oil palms at 27,900 hectares (68,900 acres).

But in Balangan district, where nearly 12,000 people have been displaced, mixed oil palm plantations cover the largest area, 19,800 hectares (48,900 acres).

While the dominant crops differ, all three districts have one thing in common: all have experienced massive deforestation. In 2000, lush natural forests in all three districts were still largely intact, occupying from 50% to 78% of the total area. By 2016, almost all of them were gone.

Aerial view of the PT Borneo Indobara coal mine in South Kalimantan, part of Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Daniel Beltran/Greenpeace.


Besides oil palm plantations, environmentalists have also attributed the flooding to the proliferation of mines in the region. Walhi data show 814 coal mining pits left by 157 companies after they finished digging.

The Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam) says there are 177 mining concessions dotted throughout the flooded districts.

According to data from the South Kalimantan provincial government, there were 13 coal companies with mining contracts and 160 firms with mining permits in the province as of 2013.

Combined, concessions for mining and oil palm plantations occupy half of South Kalimantan’s total area; 33% of the land falls under mining concessions and 17% under oil palm concessions, Walhi says.

“The biggest cause of deforestation in Kalimantan [Indonesian Borneo] right now is palm oil and coal,” Greenpeace Indonesia climate campaigner Hindun Mulaika said.

This is not the first time a major natural disaster in Indonesia has been linked to environmental destruction wrought by the plantation and the mining industries. In 2019, the hilly district of North Konawe on the island of Sulawesi was struck by floods that displaced thousands of people.

A report by the ombudsman of Southeast Sulawesi province said that “generally the cause [of the flooding] was land conversion for plantations, mining and illegal logging.” An analysis of the floods by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry cited “river silting” and “oil palm plantations” as among the causes of the disaster.

Extensive mining along North Konawe’s coast might also have been a factor. The mining exacerbated silting near the mouth of the Lasolo River, resulting in a “backwater effect” that intensified the flooding, the ministry’s report says.

Activists have called for a sweeping review of plantation and mining licenses in South Kalimantan as well as a moratorium on new mining permits in the wake of the recent floods.

“The current condition shows that the environmental carrying capacity [in South Kalimantan] is no longer capable [of mitigating disasters],” Hindun said.

Jatam campaign head Melky Nahar said it’s also important for the government to enforce the law by revoking mining and plantation permits in areas that play a crucial role in protecting the environment and the people who live there. He added the government should also start rehabilitating degraded areas in South Kalimantan.

“Without that, similar incidents will happen again [in the future] and we will listen to [rhetorical] statements from President Joko Widodo again,” Melky said.

Jefri Raharja, a campaigner at Walhi South Kalimantan, said the widespread deforestation in the region has also exacerbated global climate change.

“Kalimantan was once proud of its forests, but now the forests have been replaced by monoculture oil palm plantations and coal mines,” he said.


Banner image: Flooding in Tanah Laut district, South Kalimantan province, Indonesia, in January 2021. Image courtesy of Tanah Laut Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD). 


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