Wednesday, 31 March 2010

More monoculture plantations in Indonesia

The deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions of Indonesia’s palm plantations are well known. Indonesia has the world’s most palm plantations at 7 million hectares, and the government plans to nearly triple palm plantations to over 20 million in the next decade. In February 2009 a freeze on palm plantation on peat land was lifted, making about 2 million hectares of peat land eligible for palm plantation. Clearing the peat releases millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Greenpeace estimates Indonesia’s peat land locks in 37.8 billion tonnes of CO2, mainly in the provinces of Riau, West Sumatra and Jambi. A report sponsored by the World Bank and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) found that up to 84 per cent of Indonesia’s CO2 emissions are from deforestation, forest fires and peat land degradation.

I was surprised to read that nearly half the current 7 million hectares of palm oil plantation is owned by smallholders, as little as two hectares can provide financial security for a family. This is not the picture we imagine when we hear about palm plantations, it is an important social dimension showing a broader importance of palm to the Indonesian economy, but the situation is complex and many small farmers still face losing their land for palm plantations. The World Rainforest Movement documents many recent instances of land grabbing for palm plantations. For example, PR Kresna Duta Agroindo (KDA), a subsidiary of Indonesia’s biggest holdings of palm plantations PT Sinar Mas, has been aggressively expanding, grabbing forest and rubber plantations in the village of Karang Mendapo in Jambi. Six hundred hectares of forest and rubber plantation were illegally cut down for incorporation into a larger palm plantation and ever since the villagers have suffered intimidation by people thought to be acting on behalf of KDA.

The International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, continues to provide loans for palm plantations to Wilmar palm oil trading group, another firm with a record of ignoring social and environmental standards. No less than 19 Indonesian civil society and indigenous peoples’ organisations, have made reports with serious complaints of land grabbing, complicity in serious human rights abuses of communities opposing the firm’s activities, illegal clearing of forest and peat, illegal fires to clear land, failing to conduct environmental impact assessments and failing to honour assurances of areas for smallholders. Wilmar is rapidly growing its land bank towards a target of 1 million hectares of palm plantations in Indonesia and Sarawak. The company’s palm oil plantations are vertically integrated, aligned with ports, shipping facilities and refineries for incorporation into food products, detergents and cosmetics.

French fries
French fries
Now the palm plantations could become more closely integrated with the fast food industry. The Indonesian Agriculture Ministry has designated vast areas in two provinces to grow potatoes for French fries. The programme will start with 3,500 hectares in the Kerinci and Marangin districts of Jambi and South Minahasa district of North Sulawesi, then another 6,000 hectares in Jambi. In the meantime, around 11,000 hectares have been provided in South Manahasa district for the development of the particular potato variety. These areas have been identified as having the potential to be ‘potato production centres’ i.e. French fries monocultures. As is so often the case with monoculture plantations, the crop is an introduced rather than native variety and the seeds will come from foreign investors in Australia and Canada.

One enormous new plantation won’t be feeding anyone. 11,000 hectares of what is claimed by the administration to be neglected land in Pasuruan will be turned into a jatropha plantation to feed a biofuels plant in East Java. The plant will require about 550,000 tonnes of dried jatropha seeds to produce 1 million litres of fuel per year. The Pasuruan administration’s programme for farmers growing jatropha recognises that previous jatropha growing programmes had failed and farmers had lost money on the crop. The East Java jatropha plant could be just the beginning of a massive programme of new biofuel plantations, as it is claimed that Indonesia has 77 million hectares of neglected land, 50 million of which are suitable for growing jatropha.

Jatropha was hailed as the wonder biofuels crop with its black berries yielding up to 40 per cent oil, but crops have been failing around the world. Claims that the inedible plant does not compete with food supplies are crumbling, as instead of growing well on marginal, infertile land the crop is only proving successful on fertile land and requires water and fertilizers. The Action Aid report Meals per gallon: the impact of industrial biofuels on people and global hunger interviewed farmers in many countries including India, Kenya, Senegal and Ghana who have been displaced from their land for jatropha plantations or lost money on the failed jatropha crops which the authorities had encouraged them to grow. The potential rewards of successful large scale plantation of a new ‘black gold’ energy crop, both the revenues from the fuel and the technology for processing it, are sufficient to motivate large scale experiments in growing jatropha. But poor farmers are being exposed to the risks as crop yields and markets are highly uncertain.

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