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On Borneo, green energy has dark side

Indonesia invests in the production of palm oil -- used to help cars run more cleanly. But the plantations cut critically into orangutan habitat.

September 02, 2007|Chris Brummitt | Associated Press

TUMBANG KULING, INDONESIA — Naingolan shunts the excavator into high gear and tears into a patch of smoldering forest on Borneo island, clearing the way for yet another palm oil plantation that Indonesia hopes will tap into a surge in global demand for biofuels.

Despite government claims that pristine jungles are escaping the effects of the "green solution" to the energy crunch, the boom is threatening the survival of animals such as the endangered orangutan and turning the country into a major global warming contributor, environmentalists say.

The fruits of Naingolan's labor in one corner of Borneo are plain to see: a wasteland of churned peat and trees stretching to the horizon, dotting every meter with freshly dug-in palm plants. Behind him, smoke from illegal scrub-clearing fires clouds the sky.

Palm oil plantations have long been a staple of the economies of tropical Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia. Oil made from the red, spiky, apple-sized fruit is used to make a vast range of products, including soap and lipstick.

But concern over pollution from the burning of fossil fuels in Europe and the United States has led to a new use for the oil -- mixing it with diesel to make a cleaner-burning and cheaper fuel to put in cars.

The EU parliament this year announced a renewed push to meet sustainable energy targets, including mandating the use of biofuels to supply at least 10% of transport fuel needs by 2020.

Encouraged by government tax breaks, many of Indonesia's largest conglomerates as well as foreign companies are investing millions to expand plantations and refining facilities on Borneo, which has one of the richest ecosystems in the world and is one of the only remaining homes of the orangutans.

Conservationists working to save the 20,000 great apes say palm oil poses the biggest threat. Rehabilitation centers are overflowing with animals rescued from plantations, many with wounds inflicted by workers, they say.

"Scientifically, I think the population is doomed, but emotionally I want to feel like there is still hope," said Raffaella Commitante, a primatologist at a center in east Kalimantan. "Orangutans spend 80% to 90% of their time in trees. If you take away the trees, they cannot move."

Deforestation in tropical countries accounts for roughly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Bank, because trees release carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas, when they are destroyed.

Indonesia is the third-highest emitter of carbon dioxide behind China and the United States, largely because much of the palm trees on Borneo are planted on carbon-rich peat land that must be drained first, releasing millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year.

Demand for biofuel "could prove to be the final nail in the coffin for our remaining forests," said Greenpeace Southeast Asia campaigner Hapsoro. "Trying to solve one environmental problem by wiping out Indonesian forests is senseless."

The government insists that palm oil is only being planted on "degraded" land, or land that was fully or partially deforested long ago. Officials said local authorities were now getting tough on illegal loggers after years of working hand-in-hand with them.

"There will be no trees cut down for the sake of palm oil," said Environmental Minister Rachmat Witoelar. "We have 18 million hectares of plantable area on land designated on degraded land. We are not going to sacrifice any natural forest, much less the rain forest, for planting palm oil."

Environmentalists dispute that, saying that developers prefer to chop down virgin forest because they can sell the logs to invest in palm oil plants, which take around five years to reach maturity.

They allege that permits changing the status of land from protected to degraded can be bought.

An Associated Press team spent several days touring Borneo's palm oil heartland in central Kalimantan province, visiting areas where workers were opening up thick jungle land to extend existing plantations or create new ones.

The status of the land was not clear, but massive trees were among those being cut. In some cases, workers had piled up the valuable timber by the side of the road, presumably awaiting transport to sell it.

At one plantation owned by a subsidiary of Singapore-based Wilmar International Ltd. police had taped off several large logs, suggesting they were part of an investigation.

The company, which has been accused by Friends of the Earth of bad environmental practice on Borneo, said it did not clear "high-value rain forests" for development but would sometimes clear trees on degraded land.

Naingolan, the excavator driver who has spent the last three months clearing land to make way for more palm oil plants, says he realizes he is now part of the problem, but he needs money for his family.

"I have seen countless gibbons and heard the cries of orangutans," he said as he finished up work for the day. "But there is no work for me in my village."

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