Research – Palm Oil Production in Indonesia

Indonesia is the largest producer of Palm Oil on the planet. Out of only 43 countries, it holds this record despite its peripheral status in the current World System. In recent years, the demand for Palm Oil has sky-rocketed, and because of this Indonesia’s Plantations cover over 10 million acres of land that puts our only remaining tropical rainforests and endangered species at even more risk (c.). Conservation efforts and Ecological Modernization Theorists are battling for the protection of the remaining forests and wildlife that encapsulate the Indonesian landscape through policy every day. While the introduction of policy change seems like the obvious answer, conservationists continue to run into the problem of Palm Oil production being the only means that is keeping Indonesia in a significant part of the International Trade across the globe, and one of the only reasons why Indonesia’s economy has excelled in recent years. Within this writing, I intend to bring light and solution to a currently grave and exploitative situation in deforestation, pollution, and attack on endangered species.

“Palm Oil is hard to avoid”(b.). It’s present in a number of products in everyday life such as: toothpaste, soap, and even chocolate by way of a “filler” ingredient. The demand for these Palm Oil containing products grow as population numbers grow, and with the increase in population numbers comes the inevitability for more deforestation, habitat loss, species depletion and overall destruction of the Bornean Forest. The Treadmill of Production turns its wheels ever faster in the growing economy and international trade, but other animals suffer at the cost of human advance. Fewer than 55,000 Bornean Orangutans survive today in the wild due to the deforestation of Indonesia to accommodate Palm Oil Plantations, and most companies purchasing the product have been turning their heads to the inevitable fact that the Treadmill of Production isn’t slowing and the environmental factors aren’t looking to get any better in the future.

As Serge A. Wich states in his article, Distribution and conservation status of the Orangutan on Borneo and Sumatra: how many remain?, “Orangutans are the only great apes found in Asia” (j.). This poses a problem when talking about the deforestation and destruction of the Bornean Forest in Indonesia to accommodate Palm Oil Plantations. Orangutans are already a very fragile species having long waiting periods between births of about 6 to 9 years, and having been targeted as domesticated pets within the illegal pet trade in recent years. When we combine reproduction rates with poaching, Orangutans are likely to be killed or orphaned at a faster rate than they can sustain their population. Current studies are showing that these animals are highly endangered and could be extinct within the next few decades if action isn’t taken immediately. A study conducted in 2007 demonstrated that the species of Orangutan under the most threat has been the p. pygmaeus(o.). This species is one of 2 that can be found in Borneo that is seen at lower elevations in the forest, which means that if more deforestation occurs these animals will be forced to ascend into higher parts of the rainforest. This migration alone could kill them due to scarcity of diet as well as insufficient canopy access among a range of other factors. Currently, their numbers range from a total of around 3,000-4,000 still left in the wild. There are a few protected lands in Indonesia such as the Betung Kerihun National Park, that house protection for these endangered Orangutans, but these parks cannot account for the loss of species outside of their borders.

Beyond the safety of Betung Kerihun many species, ourselves included, are victims of environmental injustice. Deforestation for Palm Oil doesn’t just mean cutting down trees. Major impacts on global carbon balance are also at stake(m.) yet there are few studies that have brought this to the table for leverage on inhabiting species well-being. Forests provide half of the worlds oxygen by inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen. One tree alone can produce 260 pounds of oxygen, and one acre of trees can diminish around 2.6 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year. When taking these major contributions that trees bring to the planet into consideration, it is disheartening to know that so much of our natural oxygen is being literally “cut down” every day for the production of Palm Oil.

Not only is our oxygen being depleted, but the air that still remains is being polluted by forest fires in Indonesia. In 2015 there were an estimated 100,000 fires, some of which were caused by debris during deforestation. Because of these fires, in just a few months time, Indonesia’s emissions each day have surpassed the daily emissions from all of the United States economic activity combined. Some of these fires took place in the tropical peat lands which peaked greenhouse gas emissions and carbon dioxide. “Taken together, the impact of peat fires on global warming may be more than 200 times greater than fires on other lands”(s.). When considering these facts, would it be safe to say that the entire human race, as well as all of Indonesia’s indigenous species, is at the hands of environmental injustice from Palm Oil production alone? What we must consider with this question is that in standard cases of environmental injustice a victim can move, but when thinking of global environmental injustice there is nowhere we can “move” to.

What we must do is regard Indonesia as the highly diverse ecosystem that it is, instead of exploiting it for Palm Oil trade. “The U.S. National Cancer Institute has identified 3000 plants that are active against cancer cells. 70% of these plants are found in the rain forest. Twenty-five percent of the active ingredients in today’s cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found in only the rain forest” (t.). With this quote comes a reality that without the surrounding ecosystem that we share this Earth with, our medical advances would be sub par at best. We need the rainforests more than they need us, and each year we continue to cut down trees in Borneo for an oil used mainly as a filler if for any significant purpose at all. There are currently over one hundred pharmaceutical companies, as well as US government branches, that support and conduct plant research for future cures on cancer and AIDS. Forty percent of these plants are found nowhere else on Earth but Indonesia, and with the protection on National Park land we may soon cease to house such a plant or flower to conduct research on.

As previously mentioned, Orangutans are only found in Indonesia but they aren’t the only species that is in threat of going extinct, nor are they the only mammal that is solely found there. The Sumatran Tiger, Sumatran Elephant, and the rarest Rhino on earth are also indigenous. There are more than 1500 birds, 430 found nowhere else on Earth, and that number consists of only the currently known species. The Indonesian Ministry of the Environment believes that more than half of the country’s species are still yet to be discovered(u.). With the rapid growth of Palm Oil Plantations and the finite amount of protected land that is being held by National Parks such as Betung Kerihun, it is only a matter of time before these species have left this Earth, never to return. The only way to protect these animals is to protect the land by way of funding ecotourism and creating protective treaties on the animals and forests themselves. By doing this, we can stop further destruction of Indonesia and begin our long process of reversing the damage that has been done.

When thinking of National Parks, ecotourism plays a large role in the protection of the Orangutans and other endangered mammals residing there. Ecotourism is the conservationists approach to tourism by way of funding the environment to gain education. Not only do these parks protect the endangered species therein, but they also bring economic growth and awareness to the surrounding problem of deforestation encapsulating Borneo. There is room for opportunity in the ecotourism market that is currently taking place by way of developing certain policies to improve forest management through conservation and National Parks funding and advocacy. By educating incoming tourists of the threats that befall Indonesia’s indigenous species, conservation efforts are likely to happen. By education, these animals could undergo further protection to secure their future not only in Borneo but across the world. A great example of ecotourism benefiting Indonesia is Dr. Birute Galdikas and her Orangutan Research and Conservation Project (ORCP) which is now called the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI)(q.). Galdikas has brought awareness, education, and conservation to endangered Orangutans by offering tours within the Bornean Forest to better the understanding of the need for these animals on our planet. She currently receives donations from people all around the world with a love for Orangutans and their safety as well as an understanding for the importance of proper ecotourism.

Indonesia has slowly inclined each year in its ecotourism market. With that in mind, why would the continuing of deforestation be in any way beneficial to that incline? Koh and Wilcove, in their article, “Oil Palm Agriculture and Tropical Biodiversity”, state that 3,017,000 hectares were deforested for Palm Oil Plantations between 1990 and 2005. Under the control of this much land for Plantation use, the surrounding species diversity plummets for not only Orangutans but also for indigenous birds and butterflies by about 83%(c.). By hurting the wildlife that bring Indonesia it’s uniquity, the ecotourism market falters. When national parks fail to house any wildlife that makes a national park worthwhile to see in the first place, tourists will find entertainment elsewhere. If Indonesia found less invasive ways to continue their production of Palm Oil without deforestation by implementing rules and policies on Palm Oil farming, I believe they could find a balance in the incoming wealth of both industries.

“The lowland rainforests are expected to become extinct within the next decade” (h.). With growing global demands for Palm Oil, Indonesia is currently incorporating policy changes in order to improve their sustainability as well as continue to grow their economy without destroying their entire surrounding rainforest. Not only do they plan to continue their production of Palm Oil in the years to come, the Indonesian Government intends to double it by the year 2020. With this increase, there is need for immediate change. In 2015, a two-day meeting was held with multinational companies about the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil standard or ISPO in order to discuss protecting the forests. The Government realizes that practical means of change need to be implemented now before the production rate increases. They plan to find a “balance between environmental protection and economic growth” (r.) in order to continue the improvement on the well-being of their people, as well as to provide better care for the inhabiting endangered species living in the forests in the upcoming years.

Along with the ISPO, Indonesia has recently teamed with the United States to create the Indonesian Climate Change Center “to specifically address issues like peat land draining by funding research intended to inform better forestry policy”(w.). The U.S. has funded $6.9 million to the center in hopes of reducing its Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the near future and provided the U.S. Forest Service to bring educated answers to effectively adapt to climate change. We supplied $58 million in USAID to help the management of forests, and clean energy as well as a signed agreement to improve the air quality, a slogan of “Breathe Easy, Jakarta” showing our obvious want for improvement(x.). This combined effort internationally will boost the morale for the Indonesian government to continue to partner with us on environmental sustainability and ecological modernization which will in turn keep Indonesia’s forests alive.

Policy change in the near future is encouraging, but what regulations were already in place for the endangered species and plantations there in the past? In 2011, a 2-year forest moratorium was signed to “temporarily stop the granting of new permits to clear rain forests and peat lands in the country”(v.). This moratorium was extended for 2 more years in 2013, and again in 2015, which has helped in limiting the expansion of the current Palm Plantations further into the forest. Plantations have still spilled onto land that was supposed to be protected, but it has helped slow the process of unwanted deforestation. By adhering to this moratorium, Indonesia has caught the eye of buyers that are interested in sustainable options of obtaining Palm Oil which is a step in the right direction. Another force of action towards Indonesia’s environmental health is international companies wanting to buy from Plantations producing “deforestation free” Palm Oil. Around 188 companies that purchase Palm Oil internationally have moved over to this model of change. The only problem is keeping these policies in full effect without loopholes and without corruption. This is hard to do when big money is involved, especially money that has improved Indonesia’s economy single-handedly. While it is hard to implement without altercations, these policy changes alone are on the road to success for future sustainability and ecological modernization.

Conservationists are the fuel for ecological modernization and sustainability in places like Indonesia. They have provided awareness, volunteer work, and education for ecotourism and environmental sanctuary for decades. Dr. Birute Galdikas, as I referenced earlier, is only one of the many that are fighting every day for endangered species consciousness and environmental longevity. If the Indonesian Government continues on its road toward sustainability, and if the lush ecosystem continues to be a point of interest to others around the world, there is a chance for success. The World Wildlife Fund, better known as WWF, is currently trying to “promote responsible forestry”(y.). They have created a network that works with companies in more than 30 countries with this responsible foresting idea. The network is called the GFTN, or Global Forest & Trade Network, and has been a great marker in our attempt towards more sustainable products. Conservation International, Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP), Critically Endangered Animals Conservation Fund, and countless other programs are all working to save the remaining forests and wildlife that we have left.

How can you make a difference with the current struggle between Palm Oil, deforestation, and endangered species? There are quite a few options to help give animals a voice as well as show your advocacy towards preventing further deforestation. WWF is a great option for donating and adopting endangered species. By donating, your funds are spread to anywhere that needs attention whether it be deforestation or simply helping to maintain sanctuary facilities and the like. By adopting, you can send money for a specific animal in need. This way, you are directly helping an animal that you personally feel you cherish in the wild. You also are educated by that particular animal, as organizations receiving donations from you will send newsletters each month to update and thank you on your needed support. If your personal interest, like mine, lies with the Orangutans, I recommend contributing to Dr. Birute Galdikas’ Orangutan Foundation International. You can volunteer, donate, or go on an Orangutan Eco Tour where you will can be educated about how important and at risk their natural habitat really is.

Palm Oil is a destructive product, and it is putting so much at risk by producing it. It has very little purpose and yet is used in so many products. We have put so much of our ecosystem, and our health, at risk for something that was only a recently highly consumed product. By destroying the forests, we could lose: our advances in medicine by way of killing rare flowers, years of health by the Greenhouse Gas emissions, large quantities of our only producing oxygen emitters, one of the greatest visual beauties in the world, countless rare species that are only found in that particular part of the world, and our chance to ever restore our slowly depleting natural environment. It takes generations for a forest to reweave its intricate web of life. If we aren’t careful, one more tree could cause such a ripple effect of devastating consequences that there will be no hope for regrowth. As I have mentioned, there are countless species still unidentified in Indonesia. How do we know that we haven’t already forced species to extinction that we didn’t even know we had? The time is now for change. We have to act, and act quickly before the corporate machine sucks the planet dry. Through a sustainable approach and environmental policy change, I believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. “Only when the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, will we realize that we cannot eat money”.


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