The palm oil problem

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The palm oil problem

Every year they burn thousands of hectares of Indonesian rainforest to clear land for palm oil, timber, and other agribusiness. It’s a big problem. Nithin Coca writes from Sumatra.


Young girls protect themselves from thick smoke from forest fires. © Sijori Images/ZUMA Wire/Alamy

Pekanbaru is in the centre of Sumatra and it is one of Indonesia’s richest cities. It is a modern town, with paved roads, bright shopping malls, and thousands of young, mostly male, migrant workers. When I visited last September, I was surprised to see the city was so dark. Across the island, there were hundreds of fires. The smoke blocked the sun and forced people to wear masks. Pollution was at 10 times the OK level.

The fires soon burned two million hectares as the poisonous cloud crossed Southeast Asia. The economic cost? Greenpeace says, more than $30 billion, including about half a million breathing problems, and 100,000 deaths. And the fires made as much greenhouse gas as Brazil makes in a year.

Teguh Surya is a Forest Campaigner with Greenpeace Indonesia. He says, ‘It was very shocking. The fires affected Singapore, Malaysia, southern Thailand, and the Philippines.’

Many experts and activists were not surprised about the fires. There were years of deforestation, draining of wetlands, and the growth of acacia and palm oil. All of this left the land dry and ready for disaster. And then a very strong El Niño made much of the island very dry.

But El Niño did not start the fires.

Robert Field of Columbia University’s Earth Institute says there is no natural fire cycle in Indonesia. People cause all of the fires and the fires can be stopped.

Draining the peat

The main reason for starting the fires is that they make forest land much more valuable.

Herry Purnomo is a researcher at the Centre for International Forestry Research in Bogor. He says that after they burn the trees, people claim the land and it makes them rich. He thinks that every acre of burned forest puts about $500 into the local economy. And so with two million hectares that is a lot of money.

The World Resources Institute says that more than 35 per cent of the fires in Sumatra are on pulpwood concessions. Most of the rest are on or near land used by oil palm growers. Lindsey Allen is executive director of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN). She says: ‘Most of the fires are a result of the industrial use of the land for planting.’

Oil palms and acacia do not grow naturally in Indonesia. They need dry land, so plantation owners drain the peat and clear the forests. Indonesia’s peatlands store a lot of carbon and that makes the fires so dangerous. Wetlands International says that CO2 from peat as a result of cutting trees and draining is 60 per cent of all Indonesian CO2 emissions.


The red fruits of the palm oil tree. Indonesia is now the world’s top palm oil exporter. Roni Bintang/Reuters

When a peat fire starts, it can be nearly impossible to stop the fire. Jatna Supriatna is from the Research Centre for Climate Change at the University of Indonesia. He says that the fire in peatland spreads easily underground and goes in many different directions and that is the problem.

The thick smoke and deadly pollution spread across the region, especially into Singapore and Malaysia. The two countries complained but they both invest a lot of money in the palm oil and wood pulp industries. A study by the Yale MacMillan Centre says more than two-thirds of Indonesia’s palm oil production is controlled by companies in Singapore and Malaysia. The biggest companies – Singapore’s Sinar Mas and Wilmar International, and Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur Kepong – have invested billions of dollars. Purnomo says,‘Singapore and Malaysia complain, but these count ries do nothing to work with Indonesia to solve the fire problem,’.

Growing demand

Corruption doesn’t help. During the thirty years when Suharto was dictator, the ruling family stole $35 billion. Family members and friends still control some of the country’s biggest businesses. Companies in Singapore and Malaysia control more than two-thirds of Indonesia’s palm oil production.

For example, Indonesian billionaire Eka Tjipta Widjaja leads the Sinar Mas Group. Forbes Asia says that satellites showed fires across Sinar Mas’ big palm oil plantations. The company said it was not true. Other palm oil billionaires include Sukanto Tanoto of Asian Agri; Martua Sitorus, co-founder of the world’s largest palm oil trading company, Wilmar International; and Ciliandra Fangiono, head of First Resources. All say they know nothing about the cause of the fires.

But the problem goes into the world’s biggest economies. They export most of the country’s palm oil. First they sent it to Europe to make biofuels and for processed foods. Then there were big problems for the US market because of worries about health from hydrogenated oils. Palm oil was the cheapest alternative. Today, the top importing countries are India and China, where there is a need for cooking oil for the growing middle class.

According to RAN, there are many brands of palm oil. PepsiCo, the Japanese noodle maker Nissin, Kraft, and Heinz are some of the companies that will not say if they use or don’t use palm oil products from forests where trees are cut or burned.

Fiona Mulligan is Palm Oil Campaigner with Greenpeace. She says most companies are far too happy with the way they get palm oil. The companies must work together for change. And in a way they all cause Indonesia’s fires.

Gemma Tillack is RAN Agribusiness Campaign Director. She agrees. ‘As palm oil plantations spread across Indonesia and further, rainforests are falling faster than before and there is abuse of communities and workers’ rights.

As the rains put out the fires and with the Paris talks coming soon, President Joko Widodo promised to stop planting on peat. And people say that the new commissioner of the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission also wants to do something.

Let’s hope that he will want to stop the corruption.

Nithin Coca is an activist and writer. He lives in California and Southeast Asia.

Palm bomb

Palm oil production in Indonesia has grown fast over the past 25 years It has destroyed rainforests, reduced biodiversity, and affected human rights.

• Palm oil is used in cooking, in processed foods, and as a biofuel. It’s also used in soap, detergent, lubricants, and cosmetics.

• Indonesia is the world’s biggest palm oil producer and the third-largest carbon emitter. Over 85 per cent of the country’s CO2 emissions come from burning forests and peat.

• Indonesia made more CO2 in 2015 than Germany or Britain.

• Companies using rainforest palm oil include fast-food chains like Burger King, Wendy’s, Subway, Starbucks, Dairy Queen and Domino's.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).