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The Burning Season – Palm Oil, Deforestation and the Orang Utan

February 5, 2009

October 15th 2008 the ABC aired “The Burning Season” , . This cleverly made documentary outlined in an intelligent and non-sensationalised viewpoint on the issues facing Indonesia. Bringing in the view points of government ministers, local small farmers, palm plantation workers and wildlife conservationists this made for interesting watching.

I have written before in this blog about palm oil. Its farming has contributed to some of the most devastating deforestation of modern times. Indonesia is now the world’s third largest polluter of carbon due to its land clearing and burning. I have been to these forests; I have worked with the orphaned Orang-Utans. One way or another has got to stop.

My problems so far have been:

Q) Palm oil is not just grown for fun or frivolity; it is an essential food source for many with around 80% of the oil going into food applications. We in the western world eat the oil in our biscuits, cakes and chocolate. In other parts of the world Palm is a staple part of a non-indulgent diet – an essential foodstuff rich in tocopherols and other natural antioxidants. We could live without these foods (or with less of them) but what about the others?

A) If we in the western world can curb our appetite for chocolate, cakes etc then demand would go down enough to make it possible to provide for essential palm needs using grasslands and secondary forests, not virgin rainforest. Not an easy solution but something to think about. Otherwise we should all be supporting a move to sustainable palm oil production (see link below for round table).

Q) Palm farming also provides income for a substantial amount of ordinary families across Indonesia and Malaysia. In many cases these people are unaware of the global consequences of their actions and are untrusting of government officials. This is a difficult situation. How do we compensate farmers if they have to stop farming?

A) Carbon Trading can help here. Paying farmers to be forest guardians protecting the forests with money collected from the carbon trading market would be an amazing solution. However, this is not easy. Dorjee Sun is trying working on a solution with his company Carbon Conservation:

Q) Biofuels demand is growing; Palm oil is now being grown to fulfil these needs. What alternatives are there?

A) The biofuels market heated up and then cooled off rather quickly due to two reasons. Environmental concerns surrounding the clearing of forests in order to farm “biofuels” left an awful taste in people’s mouths. Secondly a global food shortage exacerbated by the increase in land previously set aside for food production now growing biofuels. Scientists are working on better ways of making biofuels by using waste material and other non-food crops. Once this technology is perfected the need for biofuel set aside land would vanish. In the meantime we could always use less fuel!

Q) It is illegal in Indonesia to burn forest. Virgin forest is also protected by law. Why is there a problem anyway?

A) It is easy for governments to “turn a blind eye” while the money rolls in. Just like the global credit crunch we are all affected by this problem so we all need to help solve it. The Roundtable on sustainable palm oil next meeting is scheduled for 18th November in Bali. If it is felt that there is sufficient support for sustainable oil, carbon trading and forest stewardship governments will act. Why wouldn’t they. We have to be part of the solution here!

Is there hope?

Of course! But we have to act quickly, offer support and put our money where our mouths are.

4 Comments leave one →
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