Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Once Upon a Palm Tree

           Indonesia’s land are being cleared to make an efficient biofuel that comes from the fruit of palm trees. The country has the largest amount of deforestation in the world per year. Palm oil is also used in cosmetics and many foods. There is 11.9 million hectares of palm oil planted in Indonesia. Malaysia and Indonesia account for 85% global palm oil production. 4.5 million people make a living on palm oil, 3/4th of that oil is exported. The boom for palm oil came in the food crisis of 2008 with international buyers of China, India, and the Middle East. Indonesia’s production of palm oil come from land that was once tropical forest. The forests are being slashed and burned to make room for the growing demand of palm oil. Destruction of forests are creating more emissions of greenhouse gases than they are solving by biofuels. Cutting down the trees that intake the carbon is bad for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even worse is the burning of the trees which then releases more CO2 into the air.
Deforestation and planting of Palm Oil Trees
          Each palm tree plant can produce seeds for more than 30 years. But when that plant is no longer being used, the plantation area is once again slashed and burned to clear the area for a new round of palm trees. The smoke from the burning forests can even be seen from space. 70% of Indonesia is categorized as state forest. 12% of this has been sold for palm oil production. A regulation was rewritten in 2007 to allow companies to have 100,000 hectares per plantation rather than the 20,000 which was originally set. This does not help to preserve the national forests. The forestry department is in charge of watching over the natural forest land but has not done a good job of preventing palm oil production on Indonesia’s National Forest land. Even the Prime Minister is allowing the national forests to be cleared because palm oil is great for the Indonesian economy.
Parts of Indonesia’s land is covered in rich soil called peat. Peat releases a lot of carbon. When the forests are burned the carbon gets released into the air.  Indonesia’s destruction of peatlands accounts for 4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is a large amount for the size of the island. Groups are trying to preserve the peatlands but they have not been very successful.
Palm oil comes with a high cost of destroying the ecosystem and biodiversity. Orangutans live in the same areas as the prime soils for palm plants; moist forested areas near the rivers. The fires set to clear the forests are endangering living populations in the region that may not move quick enough to escape the fire. Poaching is occurring the regions for illegal pet trading. Companies planting palm trees are also shooting the Orangutans that are on the planting lands. There is a conservation area in Indonesia for the Orangutans and Elephants. Palm trees do not make for a livable forest for these animals because palm trees only have a single layered canopy and reduced undergrowth.

The WWF has stepped in to help save the orangutan population from becoming extinct from the palm oil plantations. The papers for the Forest Minister to help preserve some of the peat lands is waiting to be signed but is being ignored. There are organizations that are working to help with the region if the government will not. Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil works to keep land for the indigenous people and preserve the natural forest. It also looks to keep greenhouse emissions down and work promote fair trade. Palm oil production needs to be controlled in Indonesia. These plantations are destroying the natural life in the country. The economics of the biofuel is great but soon the island will have nearly no natural forests left. The National Forests need to be preserved better and so do the animals that live within them. 

1 comment:

  1. Palm oil use has been increasing very rapidly in recent decades (2x higher from 2000 to 2010, for ex.). I was interested to know what all that oil is being used for...turns out that it is food products, including the restaurant industry (according to some UN data summarized below). Biofuel applications are very small at this point.