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Oil Palm Plantations

We live in a “Back to the Future” era where most of what powers our daily lives is, in essence, “Time Travel.” Exploiting the compressed remains from prehistory - the constant rain of plankton onto the ocean floor and the settlement of vegetation in anoxic swamps during the Carboniferous period - we are mining and extracting our distant past for acceleration in our present.

Our future, if we proceed as we do now, depends on the presumption that the past is not expendable

The common view from the Energy Majors is that that this situation can be extended by opening new oil fields and by using unconventional oil (for example, oil extracted from tar sands). But these may cause environmental disasters of their own. Around half the new discoveries the oil companies expect over the next 25 years will take place in the Arctic or very deep under the seabed (between 2,000 and 4,000 meters).

In either case, a major oil spill, in such slow and fragile ecosystems, would be catastrophic. Mining unconventional oil, such as the tar sands in Canada, produces far more carbon dioxide than drilling for ordinary petroleum. It also uses and pollutes great volumes of freshwater and wrecks thousands of hectares of pristine land.

The idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy and the extraordinary power densities it gives us, with ambient energy, is the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no substitute for cutting back.

Alternative energy supplies are now firmly in the discussion, the most common option within the world community is the “Biodiesel Savior.” Although proven technology, the use of biodiesel in the West will do nothing for Southeast Asia except make a few wallets much, much fatter.

In promoting biodiesel, as the European Union, the British and U.S. governments and thousands of environmental campaigners do, you might imagine that you are creating a market for old chip fat or rapeseed oil or oil from algae grown in desert ponds. In reality, you are creating a market for the most destructive crop on earth.

Figures obtained last year in the UK by the activist group Road Block show that for the widening of Britain’s main turnpike (the M1) alone the government will pay up to US$8 billion, more than it is spending on its entire climate change program. Instead of attempting to reduce demand, it is trying to alter supply. It is prepared to sacrifice the Southeast Asian rain forests in order to be seen to do something, and to allow Western motorists to feel better about themselves.

Before oil palms - which are diminutive and bush-like - are planted, the vast canopies of rain forest, containing a much greater store of carbon, must be felled and burned. With the incentive to plant more, the drier lands are already inundated with these straight lines of oil palm and the plantations are now moving into the swamp forests.

These swamplands grow on peat. When they’ve cut the trees, the planters need to drain the ground. As the peat dries it oxidizes, releasing even more carbon dioxide than the trees. In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from anywhere in the world.

Almost all the remaining Indonesian forests are at risk. Even the Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan is being illegally ripped apart by oil palm planters. Throughout the nation animals are suffering.

The orangutan is likely to become extinct in the wild, Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis monkeys and thousands of other species could go the same way. Thousands of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and in some cases, it has been rumored that Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist. The forest fires that every so often smother the region in smog are mostly started by palm growers. The entire region is being turned into a gigantic vegetable oil field.

Plantations are also “biological deserts.” Because they are of one species, they will, by definition, exclude the rich and diverse flora and fauna that lived on the site before the plantation was planted.

Plantations contravene the laws of nature

More rationally, a large concentration of one species will provide a food source for an insect predator that the same species scattered through a forest would not. This will allow the predator to escalate in numbers to an extent that it will devastate the plantation species and then after the plantation species is consumed, inflict severe collateral damage on any adjacent forest species because of large populations of starving insects.

The easiest way to control such an insect population would be of a chemical nature. This may prevent the scenario described above, but, will cause damage as the toxins such as pesticides, herbicides and fungicides leach into the water system and poison the environment.

Thus, two environmental impacts are taking place: one in the short term, before the plantation is established, and the second in the long term, an attrition over many hundreds of years that will leave Indonesia with nothing for the future.

As mentioned above, monocultures are more susceptible to pests and diseases. Plantations risk poor health due to environmental stress from soil nutrient decline; climate change and an increase in UVB light. Soil nutrients are being lost. Forestry machinery causes sedimentation in waterways and subsequent damage to aquatic life and, perhaps more importantly, many bird species and animal species are absent from plantations, meaning the drive for Biodiesel may leave them with nowhere to run, swing, slither or fly to for their future.

Rethinking our planting, avoiding plantations and creating a new bio-diversity appears to be the only rational action

If this approach were followed, Asia’s new forests would, besides preventing floods and landslides, soak up carbon dioxide. But they are less diverse than those still disappearing. Some are plantations of eucalyptus for papermaking or other fast-growing species such as poplar, used for building materials. Others are fruit orchards. Nevertheless, even in plantation forests, if managed in an environmentally sound manner, nature subversively reinvades and populates them with a variety of other species.

In some places - Thailand is one example - there are projects to restore something pretty close to the original, diverse tropical forest. Nature does this by itself if left undisturbed. But conservationists are lending a helping hand by planting fast-growing “pioneer” tree species that provide a high canopy of foliage. This, in turn, speeds the regeneration of the original moist forest. If this were to take place, not only will Asia-Pacific’s forest areas begin to regenerate, but after centuries of shrinking there is even hope that some of its rich diversity can be recreated.

Within Indonesia, as you fly above almost all of Sumatra and Kalimantan today, the seeming tranquility below is, in fact, hundreds of thousands of hectares of straight lines comprising oil palm trees to satisfy Biodiesel demand. The atmosphere above what used to be pristine rain forest is becoming more like the streets of Jakarta with clouds of ash also drifting throughout Southeast Asia and polluting other nations.

As with all peoples in the world, Indonesians need to make money, however, after many years of corruption at both major and minor levels, the mechanics of normal business routines and the wheels of commerce have been so badly tarnished that without some form of grease they will seize up.

This grease has prevented the formation of any kind of sustainable resource group as the “brown envelopes” (under-the-table cash) are bigger carrots to businessmen and officials than the threatened snarl from public bodies trying to change both the mind-set of the perpetrators and save a huge natural resource at the same time.

In 2006, on my way to meetings within the heart of Riau Province, the landscape turned almost desert-like. Yes there were oil palm trees, laid out like a parade of soldiers, however, there was an arid quality to the road and forest behind; dust clouds blew, smoke permeated everything and the few last arboreal giants stood naked, without leaves, merely waiting, towering above the non-native palms to fall to their graves, because in truth they were already dead, and worse, unlikely to ever return.

Late last year, on the same road, I was shocked to discover how bad things actually were, scenes from Mordor in “Lord of the Rings” seemed tame compared to the devastation that continues throughout this area and presumably throughout the rest of the country.

If the Indonesians cannot see what is happening, or worse, are not aware that their children will only have memories of these once-great jungles, I do indeed shed a tear for them. However, I cannot forgive them as what they are taking from the world is not theirs to take.

The only question worth asking is what we intend to do about it

There might be a miracle cure. Photosynthetic energy, supercritical geothermal fluid drilling (such as the “hot rocks” project in Australia), cold fusion, hydro-catalytic hydrogen energy and various other hopeful technological projects could each provide us with almost unlimited cheap energy. But we shouldn't count on it. The technical, or even theoretical, barriers might prove insuperable. There are plenty of existing alternatives to oil, but none of them is cheap, and none offers a comparable return on investment to the Energy Majors.

Currently, geothermal energy provides Indonesia with its best option. If developed with a moratorium placed on new oil developments, it would certainly be a move toward a greener, sustainable future.

Oil production for fuel could be halted; the use of gasoline and diesel for vehicles is a costly waste of oil’s true potential. Deplete the oil fields and you lose many of the materials we take for granted in our day-to-day life, although getting rid of Jakarta's ubiquitous black plastic bags would not be a bad thing. Sensible and ecologically sound exploitation at minimal levels would provide Indonesia with raw materials for many hundreds of years without the current need for “production for propulsion.”

The government’s move toward LPG for cooking and transportation would at least allow the existing gas fields, which are sufficiently large to provide power for at least a century, to fuel the archipelago until other sustainable fuels are developed.

Weaning the country from the hydrocarbon tit is urgent, and may I add, not only within Indonesia. Unless we accept this, the consequences do not bear thinking about.

When the oil runs out and the plantations run dry, I’d say it will be a better day all around for Indonesia!

Contributor: Ross Scholes


  RobertGottlieb   02 Oct 08 12:29

This is a fine piece in the main, however, we need a bit more in the way of hard economic data as it's in the Indonesian Economy section. I understand that the Biodiesel thing may be untenable in the long run, but the fact is they seem to be going forward with it. So, if possible can we get more info/estimates on things like:

1. Number of jobs it might create

2. How it will affect the Indonesian economy

3. How it might alleviate dependence on imported petrol

4. How much it might earn the country in foreign exchange $ via exports

5. And any other direct economic outcomes

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