Climate & Energy Blog

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

Posted Jul. 15, 2013 / Posted by: Rey Edward

­This past month, our China Sustainable Finance campaigner, Rey Edward, traveled to Borneo, Indonesia, to view first hand the environmental disaster caused by palm oil plantations. Edward interviewed several community members who described the ongoing pollution, health, and labor problems triggered by palm oil. According to the findings of the trip, the problems are only going to get worse. Today we post the first in a three-part series of Edward’s first-person account of why palm oil is a dark venture, and why we need to drastically reduce the amount of palm oil in the global supply chain. - Jeff Conant, International Forests Campaigner, Friends of the Earth-US

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

by Rey Edward

Part 1 [Part 2] [Part 3]

[Note: All names have been changed to protect the communities involved]

A suspiciously hungry mosquito buzzed as we spoke to the public relations man from the palm oil plantation. Under a pale yellow sun, our group of four was surveying the recent expansion of palm plantations in Indonesian Borneo, but we hadn’t expected to meet with the public relations man that day, if at all.

As he spoke about the company’s devotion to sustainability, he motioned toward a lush landscape that had been cleared of natural forest in exchange for stubby, young palm trees: rows and rows of palm fronds, almost cute as they swayed blithely in the tropical breeze. Smiling, the man explained that the company was committed to sustainability, and went on to ensure us that they’d taken great pains to work with local communities. As he gestured toward a small, white field office in the distance, the mosquito surreptitiously hovered above his ear and perched on his skin above the collar of his black nylon jacket.

Early that morning, I had flown from Jakarta to Borneo to investigate first hand the impacts of palm oil on local communities. This was the second plantation I had visited with my colleagues that day, and it was already clear that these unassuming palm trees were wreaking havoc on Borneo’s fragile ecosystem. As campaigners on palm oil from various backgrounds, we were all keenly aware of the deleterious effects of palm oil on climate change, local pollution and biodiversity. But seeing a once abundant forest razed to the ground to make way for limitless expanses of industrial crops remains a shocking sight.

Indonesia is ground zero for palm oil plantations. It is the planet’s leading producer of crude palm oil: 23.5 million tons of CPO produced on 7.8 million hectares of land in 2011. This massive production of palm oil--a cheap commodity crop with an unfailing growth rate on global markets -- is a leading cause of deforestation in Indonesia, and is a constant and growing threat to local communities by polluting water and soil.

Our first stop in Borneo was with a family who lived at the edge of a plantation owned by Wilmar International -- a company notorious for its subpar environmental record. Their humble concrete house lay at the end of a grassy path next to a lazy stream. When we left our mud-caked shoes at the door, a rotating group of lean, wiry chickens gave us cock-eyed looks and pecked at our shoes.

Ahmid, the community leader, invited us to sit and enjoy a smoky, sweet coffee that his wife had roasted at home. Through our translator, he patiently explained that Wilmar gives no benefits to the community despite its claims otherwise. Although Wilmar had built canals to prevent flooding and a road from the plantation to the city, the stretch of road the company had promised would connect this community to others nearby remained unfinished. A large earth-moving machine sat about ten feet from Ahmid’s front door, where it had been growing rusty for four months now. The company has supplied a string of excuses for why no work was being done -- no fuel, no manpower, no time -- but whatever the case, the machine had continued to sit idle, a taunting reminder of promises unfulfilled.

Besides the road-building debacle, local residents are facing a much more lethal threat -- the lack of access to clean drinking water.

The stream that slowly wends past their house carries run-off from the plantation. According to Ahmid’s wife, they use the water for bathing and washing -- it’s the only water they’ve got -- despite the itching and swelling it causes. The best they can do is to avoid drinking it.

“So where do you get drinking water?” we asked them.

Ahmid and his wife laughed, and he pointed to the sky. “Rainwater, of course!”

Ahmid’s three-year old son, silently peering at us from a corner of the house, giggled, seemingly at our naivety.

Ahmid’s wife continued, saying, “Women miscarry babies all the time now. The last one was about six months ago. She was hired to spray pesticides at the plantation. She was our neighbor.” Although the woman had been provided with safety gear, she did not wear it and did not seem aware of the risks involved in spraying pesticides.

“Before, we also used the grass in the river for food, but now it is a different grass and we can’t use it.” She added, “The forest is a source of natural poisons too, so we are worried about the poisonous things getting into our water.” She offered the example of trees that produce latex. “It can cause your skin to swell, so we don’t know if the plantation is polluting the water with pesticides, if it’s the naturally occurring substances in the forest, or both.”

The mystery surrounding the impacts of Wilmar’s plantation is heightened because residents are unclear of the exact boundaries. Grass grows quickly and would easily obscures any signs, but according to residents, there are no visible signs to demarcate the plantation.

In addition, despite Wilmar’s claim of providing economic development, residents are generally only hired for low-skilled, manual labor jobs while skilled labor positions often go to out-of-towners. This pattern held at Ahmid’s community as it did at the second community we visited, and at palm plantations across Indonesia. Although companies like Wilmar promise development, what communities see is steadily decreasing forest, steadily increasing toxic exposure and few benefits.

To exacerbate matters, corporations often engage in land grabs, coercing or forcibly dispossessing local communities of their land.

To be continued….

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