Sunday, September 18, 2016

As the Global Demand for Palm Oil Surges, Indonesia's Rainforests Are Being Destroyed

Tracts of land are being cleared to make way for palm plantations, releasing vast quantities of CO2 and giving poachers easy access to endangered Helmeted Hornbills.

Forests inside the Leuser Ecosystem being cleared to make way for palm (Credit: Paul Hilton, iLCP) Click to Enlarge.
Indonesia is ground zero for palm oil, a substance that, unbeknownst to most Americans, has quietly invaded our lives.  Now present in half of all products on U.S. grocery store shelves—from crackers and ice creams to lotions and lipsticks—the cheap, versatile commodity also is on a precipitous rise in India, China, and beyond. Globally, production of palm oil has doubled during the past decade, and is set to do so again by 2020.
But the destruction of Indonesia’s tropical rain forests has implications for us all.  Not only do the archipelago’s forests provide one of the planet’s most significant carbon sinks, but the country is home to Earth’s largest concentration of tropical peatlands—soils formed over thousands of years through the accumulation of organic matter.  The peat deposits on Sumatra alone, which stretch across 460,000 acres and can reach depths of 25 feet, contain 11 times more carbon than the biomass of the forests above them.  When the palm oil companies burn the peatlands as a precursor to digging canals and planting, massive quantities of carbon dioxide escape into the atmosphere.  Deforestation and peat degradation account for a full 85 percent of Indonesia’s CO2 emissions; today the nation ranks fifth in the world in greenhouse gas emissions.

A violent 30-year separatist insurgency long spared Aceh province the fate of the rest of Sumatra, until the signing of a 2005 peace accord put an end to that.  In particular, the palm oil industry has its sights set on the province’s Leuser Ecosystem, a 6.5-million-acre expanse of lowland and mountainous rainforest that spreads across the bottom half of the province.
Considered a National Strategic Area for what the government terms its “environmental-protection function,” the Leuser is safeguarded under Indonesian law.  Still, the past 15 years have seen roughly 15 percent of its area lost to palm oil plantations and extractive industries such as timber and mining.  (Activists and NGOs in the region say that companies secure permits through backroom deals with local officials or simply clear the land illegally.  A lack of oversight on the national level means they mostly do it with impunity.) 

Read more at As the Global Demand for Palm Oil Surges, Indonesia's Rainforests Are Being Destroyed

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