For the past month, as fires rage in Indonesia, more greenhouse gases entered the atmosphere than produced by the entire US economy during that time, reports the World Resources Institute.
That’s a startling fact. The fires are an annual event as companies illegally clear more of Indonesia’s precious rainforests for palm oil plantations and drain peatlands for pulp and paper production. Accounting for 85% of the country’s greenhouse gases, this year fires could catapult Indonesia to the world’s biggest emitter, from #5 now.
2015 could be the worst yet with about 95,000 fires so far, according to the Global Fire Emissions Database. Even worse, much of what’s on fire are peatlands, which hold some of the most concentrated carbon stores on Earth. Methane is also released. And this is in some of the most biodiverse areas left in the world.
Widespread fires cause hazardous air conditions – choking haze – over much of Southeast Asia, affecting millions of people, and sending 500,000 for medical treatment this year.
"As governments prepare to meet in Paris to save the world from catastrophic warming, the earth in Indonesia is already on fire," says Bustar Maitar, Indonesian Forest Project Leader for Greenpeace Southeast Asia. "Companies destroying forests and draining peatland have made Indonesia’s landscape into a huge carbon bomb, and the drought has given it a thousand fuses. The Indonesian government can no longer turn a blind eye to this destruction when half of Asia is living with the consequences."
Why Is This Still Happening?
Indonesia is home to the world’s third largest rainforest, but it is shrinking fast because of this seemingly unstoppable illegal clearing. The country has a moratorium on forest clearing (since 2011), convicted one large company and is investigating 100 others, but generally enforcement has been weak.
President Jokowi just issued a decree banning clearing of peatlands and is mandating that those already degraded be restored, and that drainage canals be blocked to raise water tables back where they belong.
Palm oil palm is Indonesia’s most important cash crop, generating $18.9 billion in export revenue last year. In the past, the government gave out huge swaths of land to business interests, and today, much of that is governed by local governments willing to exchange illegal permits for bribes. Also, the central government lacks basic tools for enforcement, such as maps that accurately monitor where and how much deforestation is occurring, reports Mongabay.
Read our article, Nowhere To Hide From Global Forest Watch.
In 2013, Indonesia signed an agreement with the EU, ensuring only licensed, verified timber and wood products can be exported to Europe. Last year, a law entered force requiring palm oil be listed on food labels instead of "vegetable oil."
But "unilateral no-deforestation policies are not working. Companies must eliminate the economic incentive to trash forests with an industry-wide ban on trade with anyone that clears forest," states Maitar.
Corporations Step Up
Years of intense campaigning by environmentalists and dire warnings from scientists finally bore fruit last year as 30 of the largest corporations and 25 countries established zero deforestation policies under the NY Declaration for Forests. Agribusiness giant Cargill, for example, committed to eliminating deforestation across its $135 billion commodity supply chain.
A slew of companies cancelled contracts for palm oil and paper products in an attempt to get Indonesia to gain control over deforestation. Others committed to buy only sustainably certified palm oil and paper products: Mars, Kroger, Starbucks, McDonald’s, SC Johnson, Avon, Kellogg, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Walmart and Co-Operative Group for palm oil and Disney, Mattel, Hasbro, Lego, Adidas, Gucci, Tiffany, Levi Strauss, Kraft, Nestlé, Carrefour, Staples, Office Depot, Unilever and Kroger for paper goods.
About a third target 2015 to achieve these goals, according to Supply-Change.org, which tracks these commitments. Others target 2020 and some, like Cargill’s, will take until 2030.
Because of the pressure, in 2013, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) – one of the biggest rainforest plunderers – finally agreed to protect and restore 1 million hectares of Indonesia’s forests – about half of what it destroyed. Since then, Wilmar (45% market share), APRIL and most major palm oil and paper corporations committed to zero deforestation, but little progress has been made on the ground.
"APP halted its own forest clearing and embarked on a wide array of assessments in its concessions, but not much has changed on the ground – forests continue to disappear, peat soils continue to be drained and social conflicts remain unresolved. The company has even failed to protect forests they are legally required to conserve," sas Aditya Bayunand of World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia.
Forest 500 ranks the 500 companies, investors and governments that together control global supply chains of key "forest risk commodies" – palm oil, timber, pulp & paper, beef and soy. It lists Unilever, Danone, Kao Corp., Nestle, Procter & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser Group, and HSBC as the only ones that have truly comprehensive policies in place that protect tropical forests.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists Palm Oil Scorecard, packaged food companies are making the most progress: in addition to those above, Kellogg’s, ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, and General Mills top the rankings. In fast food and retail chains, only Dunkin’ Donuts and Safeway stand out, while the rest are laggards.
A big part of the problem is that the certifying group – Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – doesn’t have strong enough standards or enforcement provisions. This summer, many of the above companies sent them a letter, urging them to toughen up. Five of the top 10 corporate purchasers of palm oil (eg. Colgate-Palmolive and Johnson & Johnson) created their own sourcing policies because RSPO’s are inadequate.
This summer, Indonesia gave conservation groups a license to restore 110,000 acres of crucial forest that borders Bukit Tigapuluh National Park. It is critical habitat for endangered elephants, tigers, orangutans and rhinos.
The license goes to PT Alam Bukit Tigapuluh – a for-profit restoration company established by environmental groups such as World Wildlife Fund, The Orangutan Project and Rainforest Trust. They plan to invite locals to become shareholders, where they can sell rattan, medicinal plants and participate in ecotourism projects.
Rampant illegal clearing has greatly diminished the range for Sumatran elephants and rehabilitation centers are filled with orangutans. Illegal logging even occurs in protected areas.
Besides wreaking havoc on tropical forest ecosystems, much of the land belongs to indigenous people. Since they can’t prove ownership, the land is literally cleared from under their feet (no compensation), and they have to flee just as the animals do.
Look at the ingredients on the products you buy and you’ll be amazed by how many contain palm oil -90% of processed foods.
Palm Oil Expands to Other Countries
Illegal land clearing for palm oil, soy and cattle grazing is responsible for 49% of all tropical deforestation, and in Indonesia, 80% of land conversion is illegal, according to Forest Trends.
And the palm oil industry isn’t standing still. It is becoming a big problem in other parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Palm oil giant Wilmar International, for example, is buying huge swaths of land in Nigeria. Environmental groups document destruction of High Conservation Value areas and land crucial for communities’ food and water. So much for its policy of "No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation."