Posted by: Kristina | 09/18/2012

Of Refugees and Rainforests: A Palm Oil Saga

Oil Palm. Palm Oil. Oil palms produce palm oil. Say that 3 times fast. It’s an industry that is turning the rainforest and those close to it as topsy-turvy as saying that just made your tongue. Here, I share what I know about the palm oil industry, first as an environmental scientist, and then as a traveler in beautiful Indonesia.

Indonesia’s rainforests make it one of the richest countries in the world in terms of biodiversity. However, those rainforests are being mowed down to make room for oil palm plantations. Imagine if you took your diet and eliminated all the variety from it: from now on, you only eat one thing. Say it’s bananas. Bananas breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It doesn’t matter that bananas are fruit; you’re going to get sick because you’re missing all the other elements of a balanced diet, like protein. The same concept applies to the rainforest. It doesn’t matter that it’s being replanted with palm trees instead of concrete buildings and roads. There is no variety and the ecosystem collapses, just like you would living only on bananas. That is essentially what scientists are getting at when they talk about the importance of biodiversity. The Palm Oil Action Group notes that 80-nearly 100% of the forest’s birds, reptiles, and mammals can’t survive in oil palm plantations. You can’t sustain yourself forever on bananas and the rainforest can’t sustain itself forever on oil palm trees.

Out with the old, in with the new…a stump bears stoic remembrance of the rainforest that once stood here. A young palm grows next to it.

Well, why not? Why can’t the rainforest work with just oil palm trees? Why can’t the animals just live in and eat from the palms? Well for one thing, they’d probably be shot by the plantation owners before too long because they’d be, “stealing from the harvest.” But even if bullets didn’t threaten them, they couldn’t last long. Ready for another metaphor? You’re minding your own business at home, when all of the sudden your neighborhood gets bulldozed. You narrowly escape, but many of your neighbors aren’t so lucky. You’re confused and scared and you wander for days, but everywhere you go it’s the same flattened decimation. Finally, when you’re on the brink of starvation, you stumble back to what used to be your neighborhood and see that there are new houses now. You can tell they’re houses but they’re not like houses you’ve ever seen before… they are shaped funny and the dimensions are all wrong. When you finally figure out how to get inside one, you discover what you think is food, but you don’t know how to eat it. It has a hard shell and you don’t have the proper tools to get inside it…plus you’re exhausted from your ordeal, with very little extra energy to expend figuring it out. Plus, most everyone else you meet is trying to eat the same food—since it seems to be the only food around—so competition for it is extremely fierce. In other words, yes, it is possible for animals (including humans) to adapt to new living situations, but it takes time. And with waning energy reserves and fierce competition for resources, the odds are stacked.

Thus, loss of rainforest habitat puts thousands of species of birds, mammals, insects, amphibians, and reptiles at risk. One of man’s closest family members, the orangutan, is disappearing at an alarming pace due to loss of rainforest. In fact, the forests of Sumatra and Borneo are essentially the last viable habitats for orangutans. Dishearteningly, the UN predicted in 2007 that by 2022, up to 98% of the rainforests in Indonesia may be ruined. With those gone, the orangutans stand little chance.

Rainforest in Northern Sumatra

The deforestation of the rainforest and subsequent burning of the peatlands beneath the trees releases enormous levels of greenhouse gases, which threatens the global climate. Peat locks up huge amounts of carbon, which are released when the peatlands are drained and burned. According to Greenpeace, even though Indonesia’s peatlands encompass less than 0.1% of the planet’s surface, their burnings are responsible for 4% of global emissions every year. In other words, these lands—whose carbon-locking superpowers should be lending a major help to the climate—are instead being misused to the point where they are releasing 40 times their fair share of carbon (assuming “fair” means every square mile on the planet should be allowed to emit exactly the same amount of carbon as every other square mile on the planet). Carbon from peatlands is mostly in the form of methane, which traps even more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (something like 23 TIMES more heat!). So keeping methane locked up in the peat is very good, and burning it into the atmosphere is very bad. Couple the peat burning with the deforestation rate (the 2008 Guinness Book of World Records named Indonesia as the country with the fastest rate of deforestation), and maybe that explains why Indonesia ranks so high on the global scale for greenhouse gas emissions, despite its being a far less industrialized country than the U.S. or China.

So the palm oil industry is driving this massive deforestation in Indonesia. What’s so bad about palm oil? It sounds like something nice you’d want rubbed into your shoulders while you lay on a beach in Hawaii. False. Think of it with more of the feelings you get from thinking about the oil that clogs your pores and gives you acne, or the oil that jumps out of the bacon pan and scalds you. Palm oil is bad, bad, bad. About 70% of the world production is being used in foods right now. But palm oil is high in saturated fat and biomedical research suggests that eating it increases your risk of heart disease. Increasingly, palm oil is being used in biofuels as well. So what? Biofuels are good for the planet, right? Well, not so much if you are bulldozing the rainforests and burning methane into the atmosphere in order to produce the biofuels. In fact, the amount of carbon emitted from producing palm oil is considered higher than the amount emitted from burning fossil fuels! As if all of that weren’t bad enough, plantations are additionally bad for the planet because they often increase their yields by using high levels of pesticides, which wash off into rivers and poison fish and other aquatic organisms. Also, the palm trees don’t hold soil as well as the native species of trees (i.e. the trees that are supposed to be growing there). Thus, when it rains, higher levels of sediment wash away, eroding the landscape and disrupting the water quality in streams and rivers.

The oil palm nuts from which palm oil is derived.

Needless to say, Kristina the Environmentalist was already not a fan of palm oil when she came to Indonesia. But I hadn’t yet fathomed the extent of the human impact.

My first tangible interaction with palms was while driving back to Langsa after the nonviolence workshop in Tamiang, Aceh. On the back of a motorcycle, I suddenly wanted to hold my breath and deny the air from entering my lungs. I looked up to see the source of the foul, choking air: a factory on a small hill was spouting dark smoke into the atmosphere. The road to the factory was lined with trucks laden with palm fruits. I watched the factory long after we had passed it, realizing what it was. We passed fields with young palms planted in neat rows, stretching off as far as the eye could see, over hills, over mountains, sometimes we’d crest a ridge and see nothing but oil palm for hundreds of miles over entire mountain ranges.

Myself, riding with a friend past mature oil palms.

I found myself wondering, for the first time, about how people were affected by the palms. Did the neighbors of the factory mind the air? Did they care that their landscape was different than that of their ancestors?

I would get some answers while driving into the Barak Induk refugee village in Northern Sumatra. I rode with Pak Mislan, a red-haired Indonesian with a mustache and a smile. He is one of the Alternatives to Violence Project facilitators in the refugee camp.

Mislan showing off his acrobatic skills on a fallen log in the midst of palms.

While riding with Mislan, I noticed that he held his breath and plugged his nose whenever we passed a big diesel truck, garbage fire, or palm oil factory.  “It is unhealthy to breathe,” he remarked. Unfortunately, anxiety over air pollution is not the only fear that the people of Barak Induk face. As we drove past the palm oil factory, my travel companion Nick expressed desire to stop and take a photo of it. Mislan said that it was a bad idea, that we should keep going, that we didn’t want the security guards to see us with a camera, and that we could try again later. And so we departed and continued on into the mountains, leaving me to split my attention about equally between staying on the bike as rain turned the dirt path into sucking mud and contemplating what it meant to live in fear of your neighbor.

“Pabrik Kelapa Sawit” translates to “Palm Oil Factory”. This is a sign by the main road.

We had passed the factory about ten minutes after leaving the main road, and the road leading to it carved its way in between palms at various stages of development. The young ones were short, so we could easily see the landscape on which they were planted: rolling hills that echoed their greener, healthier neighbors in the distance. I noticed pinkish rings on the ground surrounding each trunk and was told it was “fertilizer,” but given how barren the soil was of any other plants, I suspect it was an herbicide to kill any plants that might compete with the palm for nutrients or sunlight. I already had a sense of how severely oil palm had affected the area. Before the planting of oil palm in this area, monsoon flooding sometimes caused a foot of clear water to stream through homes and fields. But after deforestation for oil palm plantations, floods became more frequent. In 1995-2005, floods brought with them three feet of dirty, itchy water and whole sides of mountains were falling off. None of this compared to the flood of 2006, which brought 12-14 feet of dirty, itchy water and 3-4 feet of sludge that buried homes and fields and displaced half a million people from their homes.

Oil palm plantation. AKA the former rainforest

About 20 minutes after we left the plantation that had made Mislan so nervous, we arrived in the refugee village of Barak Induk. People in Barak Induk were displaced from Aceh in 1999, during an armed conflict over control of petroleum and natural gas. About 2,000 people migrated south, looking for a peaceful place to live and they settled in a clearing in northern Sumatra. It was unclaimed land. After the war, however, the government of Indonesia refused to recognize Barak Induk as a place nor its villagers as citizens. The government claimed the land was a protected forest area (the Leuser Mountain National Forest), meaning people could not live there. However, no clear map showing the boundary of this forest area could ever be provided by the government. The villagers were sharp and noticed,“…wait a minute. How can this be a protected forest area? We are surrounded by oil palm plantations!” Indeed, it seems that the people of Barak Induk were once more being threatened by oil. A war over petroleum had displaced them from Aceh, and now it appeared that the oil palm plantations around them were influencing the corrupt Forestry officials and trying to get the villagers kicked off their land. They inhabit a sizeable chunk of quality land, and no doubt the plantations would love to turn it into oil palm territory. The Indonesian police and forest rangers have been violent in their support of the oil palm plantations: going so far as to shoot, slap, and terrorize residents on various occasions. Hence Mislan’s fear of being seen photographing the factory: he didn’t want to antagonize and bring further terror to the village.

Mislan let us execute a covert operation a couple days later to get this shot of the factory. This was taken while the motorcycle was still moving.

So here I found myself in the thick of a conflict stemming from the hunt for fuels and the thirst for profit, and I realized: it’s not just about the planet. I’ve gotten so used to thinking about environmental problems as just that: affecting Mother Nature/Earth/all the other ways we think about the planet while excluding ourselves. We shouldn’t cut down the rainforest because it’s not ecologically sound. It isn’t fair to the plants. It isn’t fair to the orangutans and insects and birds. You know what? It isn’t fair to YOU. It isn’t fair to ME. We all share the atmosphere that deforestation clouds with carbon. It isn’t fair to the people of Barak Induk, who have to live in fear that they will be driven out of their new home for the sake of the illusion of biofuel.

Mislan’s wife demonstrates how to weave a basket.

My experience in the refugee village led me to begin to identify myself as a humanitarian as well as an environmentalist. In fact, I think environmentalists are the biggest humanitarians there are, because we’re the ones who fight to make sure the world sticks around in a stable enough state that humans can survive here in the future. Behind every environmental issue is a human aspect. Here in the rainforest, it’s a people who have been displaced and then terrorized for the sake of one fuel or the other. And there’s always someone who is getting sick from breathing in pollutants, someone who can’t drink their water because it’s either dried up or contaminated from poor industrial practices, someone who can’t grow their crop because climate change descended in the form of a drought in his area. This isn’t just about the deforestation of the rainforest. It’s about the villagers of Barak Induk, and the countless other small communities who have been compelled to give up their land, and watch as the rainforest on which they directly rely for their livelihood gets plowed over. With messed-up watersheds and vanquished forest resources, these people are as impoverished as the animals and birds of the former rainforest.

A home in Barak Induk

Today, when I hear “destruction of the rainforest,” I can’t shrug it off as I used to, as one of those big stereotypical environmental issues. The one you don’t like but don’t really feel compelled to do anything about. Instead, I picture the people of Barak Induk, trying to hold on to their lifestyle in the face of oil palm. I see a mother with a child strapped to her back. I see young boys kicking a soccer ball around in the dirt. I see a worried Mislan, a father and grandfather, staring into the distance where a very clear line delineates where the village’s forest ends and the oil palm begin, wondering what the future holds for his family.

The line where the refugee camp ends and the plantation begins.

These kids have mostly grown up as refugees. They love soccer!

Issues aren’t so cut and dry for me anymore. I see people affecting people affecting the environment affecting people affecting the environment…. everything is intertwined.  Knowing that consumption levels of palm oil are expected to triple by 2050 from 2000 levels, I urge you to bear the people of Barak Induk in mind. Be cognizant of the products you buy and the foods you eat, and avoid palm oil as much as possible. If your favorite food uses it, write the company and demand they switch to a more sustainable oil, and get your friends to do the same.


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