Southeast Asian nations are gearing up for a major palm oil boom as interest in biofuels soars, but activists are warning against the expansion.
They also argue that oil palm plantations require massive swathes of land — either what’s left of the region’s disappearing forests, denuded plots that would be better off reforested, or land critical to supporting local people.
Governments and companies have been scrambling to cash in since palm oil prices jumped last year due to spiking demand from China, India and Europe, where biofuels should comprise 10 percent of motor fuels by 2020.
Indonesia has launched a particularly ambitious biofuels expansion programme, which aims to see Southeast Asia’s largest economy source 17 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2025.
Evita Herawati, an assistant to Indonesia’s minister of energy, said 5.5 million hectares (13.5 million acres) will be set aside for biofuel plantations by 2010, 1.5 million hectares of which are for oil palm. The main objective is “to create jobs and alleviate poverty,” with some 3.5 million new jobs being eyed by 2010.
Rully Syumanda, of Indonesia’s environmental watchdog Walhi, said proposing palm oil plantations has been used in recent years in Indonesia “as a pretext to clear land and take the more valuable logs”.
He estimates that nearly 17 million hectares of Indonesia’s forests have been cleared ostensibly for oil palm plantations since the 1960s, but only six million hectares have been cultivated.
Though he concedes that the government is now making efforts to reforest, catch offenders and audit the industry, Syumanda said these were “insignificant compared to the damage that is being inflicted on the environment”.
So we have to make sure that European and American motorists know the ecological cost of biofuels.