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A dark venture: Tales from Borneo, the global heart of palm oil -- Part 2

Posted Jul. 17, 2013 / Posted by: Rey Edward

When we left off, our narrator was speaking to a corporate public relations man about the environmental and public health  problems arising from a dubious palm oil plantation…. See previous post, here

At the second plantation we visited, we were asking the public relations man about landgrabbing, the sordid means of acquiring land that has made palm oil companies like Wilmar notorious. He smiled and nodded as he discussed his company’s commitment to community engagement. He assured us that the company would always consult the community, gesturing to Andy, the local man who had brought us to the plantation, just as a mosquito alighted on the public relation man’s dusty jacket collar.

Andy, the local man who had brought us here, had told us that this plantation was at an early stage of land clearance. The fresh land clearing had destroyed critical peat lands—deep, humid soils that act as reservoirs for carbon dioxide, which is released in massive quantities when they are drained for planting—and water pollution was already a concern in a neighboring village. In an attempt to protect their water source from the mystery water from the plantation, villagers there had built a makeshift dam, though it wasn’t clear if that helped resolve the pollution issue.

A few hours before, we had met Andy in his home in a tangle of forest that edged a dusty, dirt road. After turning off the congested road, we’d suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a verdant, dripping jungle. The green luster of Borneo’s tropical flora bloomed all around us. Dark winged butterflies flitted in and out of sight. The scarlet and golden flowers of large ginger bushes leaned in the breeze. A banana tree towered next to his front door and a black dog panted happily in its shade.

Inside, Andy explained his neighborhood’s current situation: about 6000 hectares of land were being contested between the company and the community. The community had filed a complaint to the district government on land tenure and environmental problems caused by the palm plantation. At this point, twenty percent belonged to the community, and eight percent to the company. However, local residents kept seeing more land cleared for the plantation. The primary demand of the community was to know what the specific environmental and social impacts would be, but so far, the company had not released any information, nor alerted the community to any studies being undertaken.

As he spoke, Andy’s young daughter and son stole glances at us. Darting in and out the back door, they giggled and ran by their grandmothers wrapping sticky rice and sweet coconut in a banana leaf. It was not clear how their family would be affected, he said. Water pollution was a concern. With no information from the company, he did not know exactly why the water running from the new palm plantings was a dull grey.

Since the new expansion was not reachable by car, Andy made a few quick calls on his Blackberry phone and within minutes, some neighbors appeared with motorbikes. I hopped on and soon our party was off speeding through the forest.

My driver was Henry, a no-nonsense kind of man who did not let trivial things like speed bumps or lackadaisical cats in the road slow him down. As we sped along the muddy, overgrown path, we passed by large expanses of cleared land, palm trees in the distance, and homes, some worse than others, that were still awaiting the promised benefits of palm oil. The sumptuous beauty of the land clashed with the poverty of its people. The sun glittered through the trees, almost tauntingly, yet many homes languished with cracking walls, no running water, and general decay. For Ahmid and Andy, it was clear that palm plantations locked communities into poverty, rather than bringing development.

When we arrived at the palm site, it was just as Andy said – row upon row of year-old palm trees bordering a narrow river that had taken on a reddish grey color. Near the entrance, various signs in Bahasa Indonesia warned about forest fires and safety. A large picture of an orangutan was planted in the middle, urging people to protect their older brother, the orangutan, and declaring that the government was working to ensure its conservation. In the distance, I could see the edge of uncleared tropical forest. Perhaps the orangutans, elephants, and other threatened species were hiding out there until the next palm oil expansion.

Venturing further into the plantation, I walked toward a long, freshly cut dirt road that continued straight into the rainforest. After the exhilaration of the motorbike ride through natural jungle, the sight of flattened trees and grass was immediately disorienting. Gazing now at the rows of palm trees marching in industrial formation towards the horizon, the effect was overwhelming, and tragic. Palm oil, used in so many everyday cosmetics and foods, is depleting our planet’s rich natural heritage and dispossessing people of their land and livelihood, all because it’s cheap for companies to make.

And here I was, in the middle of Borneo, in the jungle, talking with the public relations man sent to persuade me that palm oil was sustainable and green, simply because it is a plant, and it is cheap, and for no other reason than that.

Meanwhile, the mosquito was unhurriedly feasting near a critical artery on his neck. The PR man’s failure to notice the six-legged visitor siphoning off his blood was almost distracting, but consistent with his failure to notice the larger tragedy of a razed forest and a community falling deeper into poverty.

To be continued….

[Part 3]

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