Anyone following the palm oil debate would not have been surprised by the findings of the BBC’s top investigative programme Panorama earlier in the week, which investigated the industry.
Using GPS technology and satellite imaging, the BBC exposed how the palm oil giant Duta Palma Group is logging on both high conservation lands and deep peat lands – both of which are illegal.
Amongst shocking images of devastated forests in Indonesia caused by the palm oil industry, the programme also highlighted the catastrophic impact the industry is having on the natural habitat of the orang-utan.
The orang-utan population has declined by 50% in recent decades and the Indonesian government admits that 50,000 orang-utans have died as a result of de-forestation.
Willie Smits, a former advisor to the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry turned environmental campaigner, said of the findings: “This is criminal, this should not take place. It means there is no hope left for the most endangered sub-species of the orang-utan in west Kalamantan.”
To make the situation even more perverse and desperate is the move to get this post-apocalyptical industrial waste land somehow reclassified as beautiful natural forest. Much of the palm oil will be destined for oil in foods, but also for biofuels.
At a meeting this week in Indonesia, Environment ministers from more than 100 countries are facing a proposal from Indonesia and the EU to reclassify oil palm plantations as forests.
For example, a recent leaked European Commission paper on its “biofuels and bioliquids sustainability scheme” details how “a change from forest to oil palm plantation would not per se constitute a breach of the criterion” for sustainability, thus green-lighting conversion of forests for biofuel production.
If this is approved, it would totally subvert global efforts to halt climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and threaten biodiversity, according to forest and climate experts from the Ecosystems Climate Alliance (ECA).
It what can only be described as complete madness, redefining plantations as forests will create perverse incentives that actually encourage more deforestation by oil palm plantation companies.
How anyone can say that a palm oil plantation which has ripped up and burned the natural forest– with all the species loss to fauna and flora – and replaced it with an industrial mono-culture with no natural biodiversity is somehow the same as what was once rich bio-diverse virgin forest, is just completely crazy.
The move has outraged civil society organizations in the EU and Indonesia. The representatives of Indonesian-based Telapak say “the concept of calling an oil plantation a forest has no basis in fact. It is merely a cover to help investors convert forests.”
“The reclassification of oil palm plantations as forests makes a mockery of the notion of protecting forests to protect the climate,” said Simon Counsell of Rainforest Foundation UK.
He adds: “The United Nations needs to go back to the drawing board and establish a new definition of forests that recognizes the complexity and biodiversity of natural forest ecosystems.”
But don’t underestimate the powerful lobbying of the palm oil industries to get their way.