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

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

In the morning, having survived the night in the midst of raging brush fires and smoldering peatlands, we packed up our gear and hiked back down to the Sekonyer River, where we boarded a small motor boat that would take us along the border between Tanjung Putting National Park and the new oil palm concession.

According to WALHI, the provincial government had released a 25,000 acre chunk of land from protected area status in 2012, in order to allow the area to be developed into a plantation; Zenzi speculated that the release may have been initiated by a mapping error, where it wasn’t clear that the land was part of Tanjung Putting National Park. Ultimately, the point was moot because the company had begun to burn and drain the land almost immediately. Now, a huge area of primary forest and peatland, some of which was officially off limits to development under the government peat moratorium and some of which was within the national park, was being converted for palm oil.

We’d been motoring down the river for no more than 30 minutes when we spotted a dark shape in the forest canopy above us — an orangutan peeking out from the high branches of a tree on the concession side of the river. We shut down the engine and back-paddled to shoot pictures and take a GPS sighting. The animal eyed us and retreated behind the trunk of the tree where he could watch without being in full view. Trying to be as quiet as possible, we swung the boat around, desperate for a clear sight to take pictures. If we could document wild orangutans on this land, we’d have a better chance of regaining its park status — not to mention saving the animals themselves.

Orangutan in tree, Central Kalimamtan, Indonesia. Photo credit: Victor Barro, Friends of the Earth Spain

Borneo and Sumatra are home to the world’s last wild orangutans, and during the past decade the destruction of rain forest has cut their population in half. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has classified the Bornean orangutan as Endangered; with approximately 5,000 of the estimated 55,000 animals killed every year, extinction in the wild is likely in little more than a decade.

Current best practice standards for palm oil plantations include a requirement (albeit voluntary), that companies set aside areas of High Conservation Value — a designation that protects biodiversity and cultural uses — and forests with High Carbon Stock — a designation of biomass density; similarly all plantations that receive certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil must leave a 500-meter buffer zone along waterways. This plantation is subject to all of these rules, and the orangutan we were watching was clearly living in forest that met all of these standards — and was still standing. But a 500-meter strip along the river is hardly enough for wild orangutans, who need miles of contiguous forest to roam and forage in. Unable to swim and fearful of water, this orangutan was forever cut off from any relatives it might have in the National Park across the river. And, with palm oil companies not known for keeping their conservation promises, who knew how long this stretch of forest would be here?

After getting a handful of photos, most of which showed only a dark reddish blur amidst the trees, we started the motor and continued downstream. But only a few minutes had passed before M sighted something else and shut down the motor. My eyes saw nothing, but M insisted that we look at an oblong bundle of dense foliage high up in the trees. It was an orangutan nest.

Like gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, orangutans build elaborate tree beds by weaving branches, twigs and leaves together into bowl-shaped cradles at least 10 meters above the ground. This first nest was difficult to spot at first, but after M described the telltale signs, the nest’s dark oblong bulk became unmistakable.

Over the next hour we saw five more orangutans and at least two more orangutan nests. There was now no doubt that this forest was home to a significant population of the endangered primates, and we were excited to get these finds on record. But our excitement died down quickly when, after we’d stopped to record the last animal, our boat’s motor refused to start back up.

M laughed and the rest of us worried, as he told us it would take about 10 hours of paddling to get back where we started. But before long we’d paddled alongside a wooden dock on the national park side of the river, which turned out to be an orangutan viewing platform. M stepped off the boat, walked into the National Park to where his cell phone would get a signal, and called a friend. Thirty minutes later we were off down the river again, in a speedboat.

Now, darkness was beginning to fall, and we asked M to head us toward where we’d sleep for the night. But he was too excited to do that, as he spoke with his friend who piloted our new boat. The man, shirtless, shoeless and in his mid-twenties, also worked for one the local companies, and he had told M that he knew exactly where the company had excavated peat drainage canals in the new concession — draining and drying the deep peat soil to make way for palm oil cultivation.

Before the light began to die, we’d motored up to the mouths of two canals, each about two-meters deep and a boat’s length wide and each running fast with dark, mineral-rich water that was a telltale sign of a draining peat bog. At both canals, we climbed ashore and walked inland as far as we could, nervous about the possibility of being seen, but excited to find such blatant evidence of land clearing by a company that had publicly sworn off of peatland destruction. Alongside both canals, trees had been taken down leaving a vast scar of deforested land; at the end of one of the canals, roughly 500 meters from the river, a blue steam-shovel sat still and silent on its giant metal treads next to freshly dug swampland, abandoned for the evening. We took photos and GPS readings, and hurried back to the boat.

Blue excavator, Central Kalimamtan, Indonesia. Photo credit: Victor Barro, Friends of the Earth Spain

All the while, the air was charcoal-rich with haze and the sky, which should have been crystal blue above, was hidden behind a dense white curtain. The sun, an orange smear, rested above the gray forest horizon.

It was only after I’d returned home that news reported Indonesia’s haze crisis was the worst in a decade; and that the country’s daily CO2 emissions had eclipsed those of Germany, Japan and the United States.

As the news pours in of the mounting crisis, Friends of the Earth — like our peers at other global environmental organizations — is racing to compile the data to share with our members, colleagues and campaign targets. But collecting and compiling maps, GPS tagging, digging up the details of illegal permits, company records and other primary sources; vetting the facts; sorting the photos and generally getting the story straight, takes time.

Meanwhile, most of the staff at WALHI has been forced to expand its campaigning work in order to halt the palm oil industry’s expansion and deal with the biggest public health crisis in their history. The organization established regional posts in five provinces, including Central Kalimantan, to register the public’s health crisis and the forest fire complaints. Each post is equipped with doctors and academics who record health, ecosystem and social losses caused by the man-made disaster.

“This is a new breakthrough,” Abetnego Tarigan, WALHI’s director, told the Jakarta Post last month.

“Usually we sued companies that caused fires without submitting data on loss experienced by the public. This time we will include the data to sue not only the companies but also regional and central governments for letting the companies cause the fires,” he said at a press conference under the name, “Where There are Concessions, There is Smoke” at WALHI’s Jakarta offices.

During the press conference, WALHI presented its data on the fires from last year, showing that as many as 4,084 hot spots were detected in plantation concessions owned by 150 companies across the five provinces under study.

The 2015 Indonesian fire disaster comes just as the world is preparing for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris next month, where every nation is expected to commit to reductions in its carbon emissions. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, has taken strong public stances against the abuses of the palm oil sector, but political machinations have prevented his words from being turned to action. And, his economic agenda may run counter to reducing CO2 emissions: according to the Jakarta Post, by 2019, Indonesia plans to build 24 seaports, 15 airports, 35,000 megawatts worth of power plants, and to develop at least nine million hectares (22 million acres) of new agricultural land, including of course palm oil. President Jokowi also announced plans to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade partnership that would likely scale up Indonesia’s palm oil exports while seriously undermining national regulations on land use and agriculture.

With Indonesia’s forests and peat lands going up in smoke, the political winds seem to be blowing in all directions — most likely serving only to fan the flames until the monsoon rains come to put the fires out until next year.

To support WALHI in the evacuation of children, elders and pregnant women, donate here.

To become a member of Friends of the Earth and support our work to fight back against the palm oil industry’s expansion, click here.

Friends of the Earth

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Friends of the Earth U.S. defends the environment and champions a healthy and just world. www.foe.org

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