Jonathan Green

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The Palm Oil Scandal

For most of the day we had journeyed down bumpy, single track roads, deeper and deeper into the jungle. We arrived in a clearing encircled by a clutch of ramshackle huts constructed from dead, grey wood. Children in filthy T shirts stared glum and dead-eyed from the dark spaces inside. Men, switch-thin, with traces of scurvy on their shins and women with cracked, brown teeth stopped motionless and unsmiling when they saw us.

Just as we introduced ourselves, I noticed a flash of animation from the tangled undergrowth lining the sludgy, milk chocolate river that lay just behind. Abruptly, a crazed attacker materialized in our midst jabbering and shouting at me: his spear at my throat. “Toja! Toja! He bellowed in a strange dialect. It meant: “I’ll spear you!” He was a short, barefoot man, dressed in a filthy loin cloth with a muddy orange headband. A feral, tousled moustache twitched above a mouth that was spitting with white-hot rage. His eyes, runny and red, held a wounded, savage pain as he ranted and seethed.

“Kami kelaparan! Tak ada makan! He screamed. “We are starving, we have no food.” And then he sprang forward. His dirty, iron spear tip – poisoned with toxic tree root - hovered over my heart.

My interpreter panicked. “He is going to kill us,” she hissed, edging backwards. Fortunately the villagers ran to our rescue. They grabbed the spear and wrestled the tip to the ground. All the time my attacker kept shouting. “Is he our enemy? Is he the one who has taken our lands?”

Slump-shouldered and restrained, he began to babble. “There used to be tigers and elephants here,” he said. “We had food. And my bag here was full of fish. But now we are starving and have nothing. Look at what they have done!” He casts his hands around him.

It was true. The lush, fecund rain forest which once spread out across this land has been burnt to the ground and bulldozed. In its place is a dark, palm oil plantation with neat, serried rows of thick, scaly trunks stretching to infinity planted by migrant labour gangs.

My potential attacker is called Ascianti. He had roamed these lands since he was a boy hunting with a blowpipe and a spear, plucking fruit from the trees a few short steps from his house. The rainforests on the Indonesian island of Sumatra not only hold rare endangered species like the Sumatran tiger but also contain one of the greatest biodiversities on earth: 200 vascular plant species in just 200 meters of forest - more even than the Amazon rainforest.

But all local wildlife that once shared the forest with these villagers has now fled or been killed. Not only has the forest been burnt down to be replaced by the oil palms, but the plants also greedily gorge on 12 liters of water a day, sucking rivers dry in the process. So even the little life left after the bulldozers had finished quickly vanished too. Even the rains that used to fall here come less and less as the oil palms suck the water out of the air.

We are in the remote district of Batang Hari on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, where a feeding frenzy is taking place among multi-national corporations desperate to take advantage of a new ‘green rush’.

The frenzy is being fuelled by governments around the world ravenously seeking greener energy sources. Many, including the British government are promoting biodiesel as an alternative to polluting fossil fuels. Rapeseed, soya, even waste vegetable oil can all be turned into biodiesel. But palm oil has become one of the dominant plants used to create this new fuel and Indonesia is shortly to become it’s biggest producer. The palm oil rush, however, is causing destruction and a tragedy of epic proportions.

Astonishingly, the British government even gave a grant to the company that now owns the land around Acianti’s villag. PT Asiatic Persada, a company part owned by one of Asia’s largest palm oil giants, Wilmar gained investment from the UK’s Capital and Development fund, set up to provide investment in sustainable and responsibly managed businesses operating in the area of palm oil. But in 2005 CDC sold the investment fund.

‘It’s insane,” says Ed Matthews of Friends of the Earth. ‘Here you have the British government backing an industry that was meant to directly protect the environment and yet it is doing exactly the reverse. Biodiesel is destroying the rainforest, creating human rights abuses and the extinction of species. It’s the worst irony I have ever come across. When these politicians start setting targets for sustainable fuel all they are doing is, in effect, funneling more money to corrupt companies in Indonesia to go and cut down the rainforest, kick people out of their homes and starve them. Worst of all they are congratulating each other for doing so and making themselves look good. It’s disgusting.”

Ascianti thought, that with my white skin, notepad, cameras and official air, I worked for a palm oil company. I asked one of the other villagers in a quieter, moment after Ascianti and I had shaken hands as friends, if he would have speared me. “Yes,” he said without hesitation. “If he found out you worked for the palm oil companies.”

Further along the road I arrive at the former village of Padang Salak, only three houses are left. They are virtual shacks, built on stilts with no running water or electricity. Cresting over the top of the surrounding hills and stretching away to the horizon like an advancing army, are newly planted palm trees. Soon their homes will be swallowed. The forest for which they depended upon for food, medicine, building materials,in short, life itself has gone.

The plantation is constantly expanding. Every few weeks time the bulldozers come and knock the fragile, wooden houses down. Soldiers sometimes come with guns and remove people from their homes. ‘We refused to go so the company came with the army at night,” says a diminutive man called Mohammed. “They had guns and bullets. They forced us out.”

Now the villagers play a game of cat and mouse moving to undeveloped parts of the plantation before they are moved on again and their houses bulldozed. Each time scavenging wood to build their homes is harder. “After the tsunami we could rebuild,” says Mohammed. “But not with this. We can’t rebuild after the damage done here. There is nothing left to rebuild with.”

One man in a grubby Nike sleeveless T shirt says he has been hunting for two days and came back with nothing each time. “The animals have gone,” he spits. One woman holds up a small bag containing half a pound of rice. “This is all I have for my entire family for the next week,” she berates. “We had to eat the palm oil,” she adds. “I gave it to my children but they got dizzy and sick.” And for this they are arrested and taken to the company’s offices and given a warning. “What do they expect us to do!” she shouts.

Palm oil has been a controversial product for years. It finds its way into soap, lipstick, margarine, even breakfast cereals. In fact one in ten of all products sold in British supermarkets contain the ingredient. But many of Britain’s largest companies including Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Body Shop, Waitrose and Asda have recognized the enormous problems caused by palm oil and signed up to an agreement to only use product that is cultivated in a ‘sustainable manner’

Yet the drive for biofuels has caused a sudden explosion in demand for palm oil. The EU Commission has declared, under the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, that all fuel must contain a 10 per cent sustainable ingredient by 2020.

In Britain the Chancellor has committed to ensuring that all fuel will be made up of 5 per cent of renewable sources by 2010. He intends to enforce this by placing a 15p duty on each litre of fuel that does not match these requirements. Already, according to Revenue and Customs figures 169 million litres of biodiesel were sold last year, a 500 per cent increase on 2005.

There is simply not enough land in Britain to produce the amount of palm oil. So every year companies in Indonesia and Malayasia l destroy a section of the rainforest as big as the country of Belgium. The palm oil industry already has 6.5 million hectares of oil palm plantations across Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia but it isestimated that it was responsible for the destruction of 10 million hectares of rainforest. By 2020 Indonesia’s palm oil plantations are projected to triple in size to 16.5 million hectares.

Palm oil is being imported by a glut of British companies such as Teeside’s BioFuels Corporation. It just built a biodiesel plant near Middlesborough, opened by Tony Blair in June last year. Greenenergy Biofuels, in which Tesco has a large stake, is putting up a £13.5 million plant in Humberside with palm oil expected to be one of the main feedstocks.

It is not only the destruction of the rainforest that is concerning. The very production of palm oil arguably produces as many CO2 emissions as conventional fossil fuels, some argue even more. Peat land drained in Indonesia to make way for palm oil releases 600 million tons of carbon a year into the atmosphere and fires contribute to another 1.5 billion tons annually. “It’s absurd,” says Friends of the Earth’s Ed Matthews. “The palm oil industry at the moment produces eight percent of all global C02 emissions.”

If Indonesia’s carbon emissions include those produced by the clearing of the forests and the effects of draining the peat then the country becomes the third biggest producer of C02 emissions in the world, behind only America and China.

As the palm oil companies become richer they also become more powerful and use increasing force to remove people from the land.

On first appearance Tambusai is an idyllic village, fringed by coconut trees where the smell of fresh rain seems to permeate everything. The village sits in dense forest in the center of the island of Sumatra. It’s hard to reach: hours down muddy tracks, you have to cross a river on a makeshift raft and then there’s motorcycle ride. For sometime people lived here oblivious to big money companies and their agendas.

Irfan Siregar, 40, a petite woman with soft, brown eyes breastfeeds her daughter Andriyani on the floor of her two bedroom home. “Our whole lives changed when the oil palms came,” she says. When they did she became a widow and her nine children lost their father.

In 1994 a plantation company won a concession from the Indonesian government to develop a 10,600 hectares of land which was planted with cacao trees. The land was then quickly bought by a subsidiary of the PT Surya Dumai Group, which had already been criticised in the Jakarta Post for dumping palm oil waste that killed thousands of fish in the Kuning River.

The new owners quickly logged and bulldozed the cacao trees and planted palm oil instead. Then they took over 2808 hectares of community land. Irfan’s husband, Usman found his rubber trees, his means of supporting his family, cut down.

Usman and other men in the village decided to stage a peaceful demonstration. Around fifty men from the village went to the company’s headquarters at 9am on November 20th last year. They were met by 35 black and red uniformed private security guards led by a former Indonesian Army officer.

At lunchtime, they were set upon by the security guards. Police fired gunshots in the air to warn them, but the security guards attacked them with stones and the short spears used to move palm oil clusters. Two men, Armin Lubis and Irfan Rangkuti were both killed. And, in the melee, Usman was stabbed in the side with a spear.

There were no hospitals nearby, only a local clinic. Usman was treated and stretchered home after three days. His wounds turned septic. Three months later he died a bitter and broken man.

No-one was ever charged for the murders.

Outside the village, several palm oil plants – standing in the middle of massive palm oil plantations belch out thick, black smoke into the air. As palm oil needs to be processed within 24 hours of harvesting one CPO mill is built for every 4 – 5000 hectares of plantation – which means scores of them are now dotting the countryside. They emit Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME) which pollutes rivers and kills aquatic life as well and which local people claim causes skin rashes.

Near the PMKS’s Talikumain’s factory children swim in a river – their only water source - with a brown scum on the surface. Large waste pools of a darkish green ooze sit near the factory.

As you drive south down the length of Sumatra you ride through more dark, palm oil plantations devoid of all life, past ashen land and smoking ruins.

Every where we found fearful communities terrified of the police or their local representatives. Often people are so scared they leave everything - their homes, familes and lives and simply go on the run.

I met 51-year old Kade hiding in an area in South Sumatra. She tells me that the paddy fields that used to surround her village were destroyed by a palm oil company, PT Persada Sawit Mas two years ago. One night one of the company’s huts was set alight.

At 3pm on June 6 last year 120 police ransacked the village looking for the culprits. Kade decided to flee with her daughter. “I never thought at my time of life I would be a fugitive,” she says. “But it is too dangerous for me to go back.”

Fifteen men were arrested. One of those was Dian, 18, a rubber farmer. He was taken to Pampangan Police Station. “They punched me in the chest and face and forced me to admit it,” he claims. “I wouldn’t though.” He was eventually jailed for six months. Another woman, Merpati, says her husband was arrested and died in police custody.

Three other men are still languishing in prison and I had been promised an interview. But when I visited the governor hid behind the prison’s mildewed walls topped with barbed wire, and huge gates. ‘We might not like what you write,’ he relayed through one of the guards at the front gate. ‘You can’t come in.’

Borneo is the third largest island in the world. It is owned by three countries, but I head to the Indonesian half in the south. This incredible area contains 15, 000 species of flowering plant, 3,000 species of trees, 221 species of mammal, including the endangered orangutan and 420 species of bird.

The environmental catastrophe witnessed in Sumatra is about to arrive in Borneo. Plans are underway to establish the world’s largest palm oil plantation of 1.8 million hectares in the heart of Borneo. Developers here are fighting over the rainforest. And already a cynical exploitation of the land is taking place.

The Governor of the area, Suwara Abdul Fatwa was recently charged with corruption, fraud and abuse of power for accepting a bribe from a company wanting to build a massive 2.5 million hectare oil palm plantation in the middle of the forest. The company entirely cleared the area of some 700 000 cubic meters of wood worth $42 million. Then the company vanished.

Benyamin Tawaking, 37, a Dayak – an ancestor of the famous Borneo headhunters - takes me deep into the jungle to show me the destruction being caused by another giant palm oil producer, London Sumatra, or Lonsum. As the name suggests this was originally a British company, although it is now Indonesian.

We drive east of Samarinda into East Kalimantan. After ten hours our car breaks down with the savage battering on the roads just as night begins to fall. We manage to borrow a decrepit motorcycle with no brakes from a villager. Benyamin rides with me pillion into the heart of the oil palm plantation in the enfolding darkness. “Here was where I planted rubber, cashew and mango trees with my uncle.” He shouts above the sputtering engine. “Now they are all gone.” Lonsum paid Benyamin 2m rupiah (around £100) per hectare in compensation. This is a pathetic figure as the 180 rubber trees per hectare produce around £500 per month in income.

The village, consisting of wooden houses on stilts, lines a river polluted by a local coal mining company. The Great Customary Chief, Petrus dressed in a pink polo shirt, takes on a serious air as he leads us past wood carvings of his ancestors and sits himself regally in a high-backed chair in his living room.

At first, he says, when the company came they thought it was a good thing. They offered a partnership with the Dayak in producing palm oil, a share of profits and other benefits. This hasn’t happened and now their forests are being stripped away. None of this was helped when the former chief, stricken by greed, sold off half the forest to Lonsum. “Day by day our forests get smaller,” he says. “We are insulted to be asked to be plant workers and paid by the hour on our own land.”

The village is ruled by superstition. The Dayak believe that their ancestors inhabit the trees. As well as parts of the forest reserved for hunting, crops and even an emergency part in case of famine, there is also a section called the Keramar, which is set aside for their ancestors.

A turncoat tribesman, Pak Madya, a forty year old who began to work for the company burning trees and clearing land died suddenly in his sleep. “Our ancestors are angry,” says the chief pointing to the death as proof. “We held a ceremony and killed 13 pigs, 3 buffalo and lots of chickens.”

Later that night I am invited to a ceremony conducted by the village medicine man, resplendent in grass skirts and festooned with coconut leaves. Over an evening of mesmeric chanting, hypnotic beats on lizard skin drums and brass bells the villagers prayed to an iron wood tree that was planted in the middle of a house. For these people to see trees bulldozed and burnt is on a par with seeing your relatives murdered, their spiritual lives snuffed out.

In 1996 a vicious war broke out between the native Dayak’s and the Madura who emigrated from an island off Java and settled in the Dayak forests – attempting to take their lands like Lonsum. There were mass executions as the Dayak attacked with blowpipes, severed the heads of the settlers and ate their livers and hearts. Some 500 were killed before the Indonesian military was called in – but it was too late for many.

Chief Petrus turns to me and with disarming candor says : “I killed my enemy and ate his heart. This makes me a great chief. If Lonsum keep doing this here the same will happen to them. I keep trying to stop the violence against the company. But it will come like it was before. The Dayak people have a limit.”

But what is being done? The Netherlands – heralding a green revolution – were once the biggest importers of palm oil in Europe. They bought in 1.7 million tons last year supported by government subsidies. But then they completely reversed their decision and Environment State Secretary Pieter van Geel publicly stated his ‘regret’ considering the damage oil palm production does. The Dutch parliament fully supported a policy change. And as such Dutch energy company, Essent, decided to stop using palm oil.

But what about UK biodiesel operators? They are still importing unchecked. There is no certification atpresent, apart from a voluntary mooted scheme, so companies are free to buy from whoever they choose without having to check the provenance of the fuel.

Ed Matthews is unequivocal. “The British government must ensure we do not import palm oil for biofuel. British companies must stop importing palm oil until the Indonesian and Malaysian governments have stopped converting rainforest into oil palm plantations and ensured that the rights of indigenous people over their forest land are fully respected.”

For Ascianti though, who has no sense of the politicians in Brussels or even what biodiesel is, the future looks bleak. “Tell your people to give our lands back,” he says, by way of farewell, still suspicious that I was an oil palm company agent all along. Hungry and tired, he gathers up his spear, tightens his headband plunges back into the massive dark, stillness of the oil palm plantation for another fruitless hunting trip. How long he will survive against the powerful palm oil industry, which after all has the backing of a western world bent on saving the planet, is anybody’s guess.

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