Climate & Energy Blog

A dark venture: Tales from Borneo, the global heart of palm oil -- Part 3

Posted Jul. 19, 2013 / Posted by: Rey Edward

When we left off, a  local corporate public relations representative, unbeknownst to himself, was being devoured by a bloodthirsty mosquito in the heat of a palm oil plantation in the heart of Indonesian Borneo, all while failing to notice the larger tragedy of a razed forest and a rural community falling deeper into poverty.… See previous post, here

We had arrived at the plantation unannounced, so when Andy called the public relations man to talk with us we were a bit concerned about how we would explain ourselves, the questions we would ask, and, more worrisome, the questions he would ask. Andy suggested that someone else, besides him, should ask some hard questions. Throughout our conversation, Andy merely listened, soaking in the man’s responses like a Mycale armata, the neon orange sponge native to Indonesia. Only later did we learn that Andy and the public relations man sometimes socialized with each other, as happens in a small community. But despite this basic level of friendship, there were still some questions he could not ask.

 For example, did the company seek the consent of the local community for the expansion? Were there any environmental impact assessments done on the water quality or pollution run-off? Were the results of any tests released and available to the public? We insisted on knowing what the company was doing to address these concerns.

While responding to our questions, the public relations man continued smiling his public relations smile. He was aggressively agreeable to all our questions, constantly thanking us for our concern even as he cited his company’s policies on community consent and environmental protection. Bored with his canned response, I asked if he could provide specifics on the timeline and process the company used in engaging and notifying the community on potentially hazardous events. How did the company communicate with residents? What was the company’s ideal timeline for resolving problems?

All good questions, the public relations man exclaimed, adding that the company would evaluate conflicts on a case-by-case basis, but thank you again for your concern. There seemed no question I could ask that could puncture this man’s curiously resilient public relations force field.

Our translator and guide, a fierce young woman who has invested her life in protecting Indonesia’s deteriorating environment, launched a barrage of questions – what environmental and social guidelines did the company employ? How are they implemented? How are they held accountable? What were the results of the water testing and how can people access them?

These uncomfortable, reasonable questions, it appeared, were above his pay grade, and he deferred to his supervisor. He acknowledged that water testings were indeed executed and that the results were filed in an office in another district. The results were not finished and thus unavailable to the public, but yes, the results will be released in the future. Our translator, dissatisfied, pressed him on the water contamination.

He gestured towards a small bridge over a nearby creek and pointed toward a murky net bobbing in the water. He explained that this net was put in place to prevent debris and pollution. How such a net could prevent chemical contamination was unclear.

Seeing our puzzled faces, he emphasized that the company takes great pains to ensure the wellbeing of the communities. He was unaware of the results, and in any case, even if he had wanted to, he did not have authorized access to view the results anyway, though he assured us that such tests were being done. He emphasized that his job did not cover this kind of information, so could we please accept his apology for not being of further help?

As we spoke, men on motorbikes roared up and parked a few feet away. Over the course of thirty minutes, about four of them arrived, passing the time watching us and chatting sporadically with our drivers. Instinctively, I began discretely looking around for exit routes. Our conversation had been cordial, and yet PR man had apparently called for backup. I deduced that the quickest exit route was toward the shrubbery directly behind me, noting that town was in the opposite directing. How fast could I run? Could we jump on our motorbikes and drive off if tension escalated? As my concern began to escalate, my campaigner colleague casually dipped an empty bottle into the river and placed it in his backpack.

Luckily, no such exit plans were necessary. Our conversation remained polite, and we all shook hands in the end to show no hard feelings. All the while, PR man kept smiling at us, thanking us, and stopped only when he put on his helmet and drove back toward town.

Palm oil is a dark venture. In the U.S., we tend to think of palm trees as benign symbols of Hollywood luxury, but these casual connotations belie the insidious nature of palm plantations fueling land grabs, climate change, and pollution in Indonesia and elsewhere.

At the heart of the matter, palm oil is cheap, and that’s why we use it. As a result, it is being used in more and more products and expanding across the world from Indonesia and Malaysia to Cameroon, Liberia, Uganda, and back to the Congo, where it first entered the global marketplace during the waning years of colonial empire in the nineteenth century.

Earlier that day, we had asked Ahmid how long his community had been protesting palm oil. He paused for a long moment before answering. “I’m not sure how long we’ve been protesting, or when it started.” Staring at the large machine hulking and rusting at his front door, he said “But we are still trying to be optimistic.” He watched his son crawl towards his lap, then deftly clapped a mosquito in his hands. 

-The END-

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