As you may know, tropical forest fires are becoming a recurring event in Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo. Between 2000 and 2012 an area half the size of England was destroyed; leading to the loss of one of the most diverse habitats on the planet. It has been speculated that many of the fires were started deliberately in order to clear land for palm oil and pulpwood plantations.
My friend works for a consultancy company in charge of managing projects related to reforestation and tropical rainforest conservation. Over the last year they sent her on a few trips to conduct research and scope for potential projects to support. Indonesia was one of these places. She wrote us this little piece about her experience there in January 2017…
A trip to Harapan restoration reserve
A few months ago I was lucky enough to go on a work trip to Sumatra, one of the many islands that makes up the archipelago of Indonesia. Our mission was to go into the depths of the island to Harapan, a former logging concession that has been reclassified as an ‘ecosystem restoration concession’.
On the way to Harapan we drove for 6 hours through relentless palm oil plantations in various states of repair. Some, owned by big multinational companies spread for miles and miles in perfect uniform lines without a weed or bird in sight, their fruits beaming red and ready for harvest. Others were old and no longer productive; rotting, sad and overgrown, seemingly abandoned.
Why are farmers switching to Palm oil over other crops?
As we drew closer to Harapan the landscape began to change; banana, rubber and fruit trees clustered around small holdings appeared. Here we stopped for lunch at the village chief’s house. He had special permissions as he lived on the fringe of the park and was allowed to grow agroforestry crops. He spent several hours complaining that he didn’t have enough land and that he wanted permission to grow palm oil as it was more profitable than agroforestry.
And he’s right: Compared to soya, sunflower or rapeseed oil, palm oil producing 5-10 times the yield per hectare, whilst using up to 10 times less energy, fertiliser and pesticide input. What’s more, palm oil is a fantastically versatile ingredient, embedded in almost all aspects of our economy from packaging to cosmetics, and food to biofuels. If we switched to other vegetable oils the amount of land required to meet our vegetable oil needs would sky rocket. So it is no surprise that we are converting forest to oil palm!
A bit about Palm oil…
Palm oil plantations have a lifespan of 25-30 years before they become unproductive. Whilst burning of old plantations is now widely prohibited, clearing plantations is an expensive business. Oil palm are not actually trees, but are in fact monocots. This means that their stems are of little use when cut; a tough exterior encases a pithy mush which is usually removed by heavy machinery, in best cases leaving behind a smattering of fodder which can act as a fertiliser to the exhausted soil. Another approach we saw is to plant new seedlings in between aging stock – this smooths out cash flow; as old oil palms slow in production, new ones appear. Eventually the old trees are removed.
The stats for palm oil are pretty scary; this interactive tool lets you explore the facts at leisure.
The damage to Indonesia’s tropical forests…
It is estimated that Indonesia lost more than 6 million hectares of primary forest between 2000 and 2012 – an area half the size of England. Vast tracts of carbon rich peatland and rainforest have been burnt, leading to yellow smog clouding the skies of the rest of Southeast Asia. I experienced this firsthand in 2015 in Malaysia where we didn’t see blue sky for a month and most people avoided going outside as the smog caused headaches and chest infections.
The burning of tropical peatlands is so significant for greenhouse gas emissions because these areas store some of the highest quantities of carbon and methane on Earth, accumulated over thousands of years. Draining and burning these lands for agricultural expansion leads to huge spikes in greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that the impact of peat fires on global warming may be more than 200 times greater than fires on other lands. In September-October 2015, it is estimated that 857 million tons of carbon dioxide were released due to the intense forest fires (exacerbated by El Nino-inflicted dry weather) – near equivalent to what Indonesia would normally emit in an entire year!
Hope in Harapan
When we finally we reached our destination – Harapan Reserve – I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that the landscape had been formerly ‘logged over’, i.e. all of the most valuable, tall trees had been felled for timber. We woke early the next morning at 4.30 am and drove into the heart of the reserve for sunrise. It was still dark when we reached our breakfast spot; an emergent tree with a wooden platform 27 metres high. I was the first to climb the rickety ladder, palms sweating as I tried not to look down.
The view at the top was spectacular; I gazed out over panoramic views of the forests. With over 75% of Sumatra’s tropical rainforest destroyed, the 100,000 hectares of secondary forests in Harapan represents one of the largest chunk of remaining ecosystem for much of the country’s amazing wildlife. I was pleasantly surprised to see gibbons swinging majestically between the canopy and hornbills soaring overhead. I even saw a flying squirrel dart from the top of the tree and glide across the landscape. The ranger told me that there are even around 20 Sumatran tigers in the reserve, although these are at constant risk from poachers. I was comforted to see that biodiversity can hold on even in degraded forest ecosystems that had been logged for decades.
But even the future of this small reserve is uncertain. The concession holders are under continuous pressure from smallholder encroachment and struggle to pay the wages of the staff they employ to guard and protect the forest. The forest is completely dependent on donor money; a symptom of the failure of our capitalist society to value the rich biodiversity and ecosystem services that the forest provides us. The failure to value these public goods leads to the commodification and pillage of our natural resources.
I left the reserve feeling hopeful. Despite all the challenges and complexities regarding conservation and development, I have been encouraged and inspired by the ambition and energy of the people that have dedicated their life to the cause. I truly believe that with momentum we can begin to shift change and reconnect with nature and our environment.