Fires in a palm oil concession in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia in 2015. Photo credit: Victor Barro, Friends of the Earth Spain

Where there’s palm oil, there’s fire: Part I of III

by Jeff Conant, international forests campaigner

Our morning flight from Jakarta to Palangkan Bun, a small city in Central Kalimantan Province in Indonesian Borneo, was delayed for six hours because of burning haze, the sky too thick with smoke for commercial flights to safely take off and land. Along with my colleagues from Spain and the Netherlands, I was on a mission to visit some potentially illegal palm oil plantations bordering Tanjung Putting National Park on Borneo’s south coast. We’d planned the trip months before, not quite realizing we’d be dropping in on the worst fire season that Indonesia had suffered in years.

We arrived in Palangkan Bun after dark. Leaving the tiny airport, we emerged into an inky black night of starless heat, the air suffused with a sweetish charcoal taste. It wasn’t until morning that you could see it: a white haze so dense it filtered out the sun. You couldn’t see across the street. The very air gave the impression of being inside a thick hot cloud.

The name Borneo has always conjured up a remote, exotic jungle: impenetrable rainforests and wild ancient cultures. Today, an hour flight from Jakarta, one of the world’s biggest megacities, most of the jungle is gone: burned and felled in great swaths to supply the world market with palm oil, paper and timber. The thick hot cloud that envelops Borneo is the burn-scar of our excesses.

We’re met at the airport by a smiling man in his mid-twenties, who volunteers with a small local nonprofit devoted to protecting the orangutans in the National Park. Half Dayak and half Malay, our host lives in the forest: hunting deer, catching river fish and harvesting food and medicines from the jungle. Neither he nor his organization want to go on record, due to fear of reprisal. To protect his identity, I’ll call him “M”.

We’ve come at a good time, M tells us with some irony, because it appears extremely likely that in the next two months, if the monsoon rains don’t arrive, the entire Tanjung Putting National Park will burn. He tells us that, in the last week, five years of his team’s efforts to reforest in and around the Park have burned to cinders. What’s the cause? The land they’ve been replanting falls inside a ten thousand hectare swath of the Park and its buffer zone that was purchased by a palm oil company in 2012. The area is now being drained and burned for planting. Areas set aside for protection under national legislation — a much celebrated moratorium of peatland development — are being drained and burned as well.

The peatlands are especially vulnerable: peat is basically vegetable carbon before it is turned to coal. Companies dig drainage canals to drain the peat of water, then they set it on fire to dry it out and change the PH and it becomes perfect for planting palm oil. But it burns for months on end, and the fires spread underground. It happens every summer, but usually the monsoon hits in September, and puts the fires out. This year, the monsoons are late — so the fires are out of control.

M believes that the company that purchased the land does not have the proper permits to legally develop a palm oil concession there, but improper permitting is so routine that it hardly matters.

“We want to document this,” we tell him. “The company is selling its palm oil to larger companies that have made pledges to prevent rainforest destruction. If we can show that they’re destroying a national park, we may be able to stop them.”

“Do what you can,” M says. “But I don’t care about some pledge, and I don’t care about legal or illegal,” he goes on. “I only know it’s so sad.”

Squatting on a straw mat on the floor of his small dusty office, M tells us the history of the national park and the palm oil companies that threaten it. It seems that, so far, nothing has succeeded in stopping the destruction.

“Too many NGOs come and then make compromise with the companies,” M says. “The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil [an industry-led consortium that certifies improved practices in palm oil production] has only made it harder to make change. The government is corrupt.”

By the time he finishes telling us about the current state of the rainforest here, he is literally in tears.

The fires engulfing Central Kalimantan and much of the rest of Indonesia this summer are shaping up to be the worst ever. On October 16, World Resources Institute showed that there have been nearly 100,000 active fires detected in Indonesia so far in 2015; the fires have generated daily CO2 emissions exceeding the daily emissions from the entire U.S. economy, making Indonesia the world’s biggest climate polluter at this moment. More than half of the fires are on fragile peatlands, which release more than ten times the amount of CO2 than non-peat forests when burned.

The fires are driving haze across Southeast Asia, causing air pollution as far away as Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, igniting a political crisis in the region. And they are caused, by and large, by one thing: the wholesale conversion of vast areas of carbon-dense peatlands and rainforests into monoculture plantations.

As, a website devoted to news from the world’s rainforests, explains,

“The process began decades ago with logging concessions granted under former strongman [President] Suharto, whose system of maintaining political patronage depended on doling out forest concessions in exchange for support. Once the valuable hardwoods were depleted, plantation industries took hold, converting logged-over forests to industrial plantations for timber, wood pulp, rubber, and palm oil. In the land rush, swampy peatlands — once seen as useless backwaters — were also drained and cleared for monocultures. Small companies and migrants poured into these areas clearing still more land to convert to plantations outright. The process in and of itself released vast amounts of carbon, but it also lit the fuse of an even bigger carbon time bomb. That bomb is now exploding.”

The disaster unfolding in Indonesia is already being called the biggest environmental crime of the 21st century. Beyond the climate impacts, the fires and the haze pollution have triggered a massive public health emergency: WALHI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia — the country’s largest environmental group, with chapters in every province, reports that the haze has harmed 25 million people in five Indonesian provinces, and has led to the deaths of at least 15 people.

“As this recent TV news report explains, most of the dead are children.”

The morning after arriving in Central Kalimantan, our visit to the plantations is already hobbled by the loss of our translator and guide: Zenzi Suhadi, WALHI’s national plantation campaigner, is unable to accompany us because his flight was cancelled. M hadn’t planned to accompany us, but in kind Indonesia fashion, he drops everything to defer to our needs. He quickly arranges a translator, and tells us to pack for a few days in the field.

From Palangkan Bun, we mount motorbikes and drive to the port, a set of ramshackle docks jutting into a wide estuary of the Java Sea where a collection of slim, brightly painted ironwood motorboats are tied up.

Boats, in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia in 2015. Photo credit: Victor Barro, Friends of the Earth Spain

As we load the motorbikes and gear into a boat, the orange yolk of the sun stands still in the haze. M points to a column of smoke that appears billowing from the trees silhouetted across the water.

A new fire,” he says solemnly. “Inside the national park.”

Covering over a million acres of lowland, freshwater swamp, peat and mangrove forests, Tanjung Puting National Park was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1977 due to its wealth of biodiversity, and gained Indonesian national park status in 1984. It is home to more than 200 bird species, 17 reptile species and 29 mammal species, including clouded leopards, Malayan sun bears, proboscis monkeys, gibbons and Borneo orangutans. Uncontrolled land use, including encroachment by palm oil companies, has degraded and destroyed vast portions of the park’s forests. Official figures say less than thirty five percent of the park’s original primary forest intact; M suggests that the percentage is “a lot closer to zero.”

Our boat takes us across the strait and into the mouth of the Sekonyer River where wild palms and mangroves are thick on the muddy banks. This is what you’d think of when you think of Borneo — undisturbed jungle vegetation, inhospitable and dense — at least a glimpse of it.

When we come within sight of a small village, M asks us to stash our cameras, and we dismount the boat, unload the motorbikes, and keep moving. Setting off from the village on the dusty road, we’re immediately surrounded on both sides by an oil palm plantation — row upon row of the spiky, prehistoric-looking trees, each one maybe 30-feet high, planted in lines that recede to the horizon in all directions, no other trees in sight. For the next 45 minutes with our motorbikes kicking up dust from the dry unpaved road this is all we see.

Lone Tree and road, in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia in 2015. Photo credit: Jeff Conant, Friends of the Earth United States
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