Borneo
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The Impact of Oil Palm in Borneo

By Rhett A. Butler

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Weak sustainability policy presents financial risk for Malaysian palm oil giant, says report
(02/27/2015) Malaysian palm oil producer Kuala Lumpur Kepong's failure to adopt a robust zero deforestation policy puts its financial performance at risk, asserts a new analysis published by Chain Reaction Research, a project involving several environmental consultancies.


Biofuels are bad news for forests, climate, food security, says report
(02/27/2015) A new report from the World Resources Institute finds that dedicating land to the production of biofuels, a form of renewable energy made from plants, may undermine efforts to achieve a sustainable food future, combat climate change, and protect forests.


Jokowi's environmental commitments in Indonesia
(02/26/2015) Last fall Indonesia elected its first president with no ties to the established political order or the military. Joko Widodo's election was widely heralded by reformers who hoped the politician's capable management in his stints as mayor of the town of Solo and metropolis of Jakarta could transform Indonesia's chronically underperforming bureaucracy, potentially ushering in a new era of improved human rights, better environmental stewardship, reduced corruption, and healthier economic growth.


New Guinea rainforest being leveled for palm oil, revealing gaps in zero deforestation pacts
(02/23/2015) An Indonesian palm oil firm is destroying rainforests in New Guinea despite high profile zero deforestation pledges from its customers, finds research by Greenomics-Indonesia. Landsat imagery acquired and analyzed by Greenomics shows that Austindo Nusantara Jaya Agri (ANJ) is clearing high carbon stock forests in the southern part of West Papua's Bird's Head Peninsula in Indonesian New Guinea.


Scientists sound the alarm on African palm oil investment
(02/20/2015) Africa’s people, forests and wildlife are in trouble if the mostly unbridled expansion of oil palm in West and Central Africa is allowed to continue unchecked, says an organization of African scientists.


Indonesia to squander fuel savings on biofuel subsidies that may drive deforestation, say groups
(02/17/2015) Instead of wisely investing the windfall generated by cutting petrol subsidies, Indonesia is poised to squander funds by increasing subsidies for biofuel production that could exacerbate social conflict and drive deforestation, warn environmental groups.


Ranking the best and worst companies in terms of deforestation
(02/11/2015) While a number of high profile companies have adopted policies designed to exclude deforestation from their commodity supply chains, such commitments remain outside the norm, indicating that most companies still lack forest-friendly safeguards, finds a comprehensive survey conducted by the Global Canopy Programme. The assessment ranks 250 companies, 50 jurisdictions, 150 banks and investors, and 50 'powerbrokers' by the extent and scope of their souring policies for six 'forest risk commodities': soy palm oil, beef, leather, timber, pulp and paper.


Norway sovereign fund drops coal, tar sands, gold-mining companies
(02/09/2015) In its first-ever report on responsible investing, Norway's pension fund announced last week that it has divested from 114 companies in the past three years due to concerns over global warming, deforestation, and sustainability as well as long-term financial viability. Worth a staggering $861 billion, Norway's Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG) is the world's largest sovereign wealth fund.


Palm oil major makes deforestation-free commitment
(02/03/2015) IOI Corporation officially committed to what its subsidiary, palm oil trader IOI Loders Croklaan, pledged last November: it will no longer source palm oil linked to deforestation and human rights abuses.


After 10 years vying for protection, Kalimantan community granted legal rights to community forest
(01/30/2015) Perseverance, respect for their ancestors, and a knowledge that the clearing of the forest will result in environmental disaster for them have all helped the community remain solidified in their resistance. Instead of selling out, they created a Tana' Ulen, or community forest.


THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF OIL PALM IN BORNEO

For most of its history Borneo was scarcely populated by humans. The unforgiving climate and dense rainforest kept populations small and scattered. In the past half century this has all changed. The influx of more than half a million transmigrants into Borneo over the past thirty years has doubled the island's population and created tremendous demand for jobs. Initially the rubber and logging industries provided employment, but when this collapsed in the mid- (Malaysia) to late-1990s (Kalimantan), work opportunities dried up for most of the local population. Despite this, hundreds of new arrivals continued to show up in Borneo on a weekly basis.

Rising unemployment was a serious concern in Borneo in the late 1990s and early 2000s and ethnic conflict raged in parts of Kalimantan during this time. The sudden rise of the oil palm in the late 1990s and early 2000s was seen as a welcome opportunity for many residents and local governments. Observers are only now seeing the full-cost of rapid growth in the sector.

Environmental Impacts

Beyond the obvious deforestation that results from clearing lowland rainforest for plantations (86 percent of deforestation in Malaysia from 1995-2000 was for oil palm plantations), there are other environmental impacts of oil palm cultivation. Several studies have found a significant reduction (on the order of 80 percent for plants and 80-90 percent for mammals, birds, and reptiles) in biological diversity following forest conversion to oil palm plantation. Further, many animals will not move through plantations while others, like orangutans, become crop pests putting them at risk of defensive poaching by plantation managers. The use of herbicides and pesticides can also impact species composition and pollute local waterways. Drainage systems required for plantations (oil palm plantations in Borneo are often established in swamp forest) may lower water tables, affecting neighboring forest areas. Further, destruction of peat lands increases the risk of flooding and fire. Land-clearing fires set by large oil palm plantation owners were the single largest cause of the massive 1997-1998 fires in Borneo.

For more see Why is oil palm replacing tropical rainforests?

Social Impacts

The social impacts of oil palm plantations are just beginning to be understood, in a large part thanks to the work of Dr. Lisa Curran. While there is no doubt that oil palm plantations provide much needed employment opportunities in Borneo there are questions on the fairness of the existing system which appears to sometimes lock small plantation owners into conditions akin to slavery.

Given the scarcity of timber in parts of Borneo, much of its population has few economic options at present. Oil palm seems to be the best alternative for communities that are just eking a living off rubber cultivation, subsistence rice farming, and fruit gardens. When a large agricultural firm enters an area, some community members are often eager to become part of an oil palm plantation. Lacking legal title to their land, deals are often structured so that members of the community acquire 2-3 hectares (508 acres) of land for oil palm cultivation. They typically borrow some $3,000-6,000 (at 30 percent interest per year) from the parent firm for the seedlings, fertilizers, and other supplies. Because oil palm takes 3-4 years to bear fruit, they work as day laborers at $2.50 per day on mature plantations. In the meantime their plot generates no income but requires fertilizers and pesticides, which are purchased from the oil palm company. Once their plantation becomes productive, the average income for a 2 hectare allotment is $682-900 per month. In the past, rubber and wood generated $350-1000 month, according to Curran. The low level of income combined with large start-up costs and relatively high interest payments virtually ensures that small holders will be perpetually indebted to the oil palm company.

Curran said this debt, combined with almost total dependence on entities they barely trust, has a psychological impact on communities. Because there are no ways to contest actions by the company, conflicts invariably arise within communities, especially when a large part of the community (Dayaks often oppose oil palm schemes) has opposed the plantation. At times under-the-table means are used to sway a community. For example, a gift of a motorbike can win over influential community leaders. Once the oil palm firm gets the approval, it may negotiate on a one-on-one basis with each household, eliminating any sort of bargaining power of the greater community.

Surveys by Curran suggest that communities in West Kalimantan are deeply concerned about flooding after the establishment of oil palm plantations. They also worry about loss of forest resources and culture -- older community members don't always like the idea of women and children working on plantations. Oil palm cultivation also makes local people more dependent on agricultural firms since they no longer grow their own food. Finally, some communities have expressed dissatisfaction for working for Malaysians. They would rather be working independently, according to Curran. While they have a litany of complaints, few see other alternatives.

Meanwhile oil palm firms are making a fortune. By Curran's calculations, some firms in West Kalimantan are seeing a 26 percent annual internal rate of return over a 25-year period, an astounding number. Because of booming demand for biofuels, they have little downside risk.

"Firms are making a lot of money without a lot of accountability," said Curran, speaking at Stanford University in January 2007.

For more see Oil Palm




PICTURES OF OIL PALM IN BORNEO  






REFERENCES  


  • Lisa Curran, personal communication
  • WWF Germany, Borneo: Treasure Island at Risk, June 2005 [pdf, 773 KB]
  • mongabay.com


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    Copyright Rhett Butler 2013