Biofuels became attractive because of their supposed greenness. Worldwide demand has brought jobs and foreign investment to Indonesia. But the rainforests, and thus the environment, are suffering disproportionately.
A palm oil plantation in Aceh
Palm oil cultivation and biofuel exports have provided Indonesia more access to the world markets. Indonesia's ambassador to Germany, Eddy Pratomo, is delighted about this fact, saying that low labor costs and huge areas of cultivable land have drawn many foreign investors to his country.
"We are very happy to respond positively to this demand, and Indonesia is also trying to set a certain policy in order to match with the growing demand of the biofuels," he told Deutsche Welle.
Orangutans, who live in the rainforest, are one of the world's most endangered species
Indonesia's palm oil cultivation areas have expanded massively. Fifteen years ago, about half a million hectares were designated for palm oil production, but today experts speak about nine million hectares.
Devastating impact on the environment
However, huge areas of tropical rain forest have been destroyed in the process and this is devastating for the environment.
Three German NGOs recently published a survey about the palm oil boom’s impact on tropical rainforests.
"The disappearance of the rainforests harms climate and biodiversity," Carolin Callenius, from the German aid organization Bread for the World, told Deutsche Welle.
"The natural environment of local communities is being destroyed. The huge plantations have displaced many people who have lost their land, their forests and are also exposed to grave human rights violations," she added.
Land seizures and the displacement of people have led to many violent conflicts between farmers or indigenous people and Indonesia's security forces.
Authorities often turn a blind eye
Two years ago, Jakarta passed a law to protect the rainforests and control the clearings. But this law has not been put into practice, said Berry Furqon, director of the Indonesian environmental watchdog WALHI. When multinationals are involved, the authorities very often turn a blind eye, he complained.
Experts predict the Indonesian rainforest will shrink by 15 percent over the next 10 years
"Some companies are still clearing the forest areas, such as in Central Kalimantan. The companies need new cultivation ground for palm oil plantations and so they destroy the forest, although this is forbidden by law. But no sanctions are applied against such companies," he stated.
Marianne Klute from Germany's environmental and human rights organization "Watch Indonesia" also condemned the government's role, saying it had done "everything to facilitate investment into palm oil, an important pillar of the country's economic growth."
She even said that a number of new laws had been introduced only to support the industry.
Some efforts to reduce CO2 emissions
The deforestation and drainage of forest soils have increased the release of greenhouse gases into the environment and Indonesia is now the world's third biggest emitter of CO2 after China and the US.
As a result, Indonesia has agreed to implement the UN forest-protection scheme REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). The program is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to help people who live in and from the forests.
It is urgent that the government acts immediately, emphasized Carolin Callenius from Bread for the World. Her survey predicted that the Indonesian rainforest would shrink by another 15 percent in the coming 10 years.
She said that EU member states, China and India and other countries that buy biofuels also had to assume responsibility for the sustainable production of palm oil and the preservation of the rainforest.
Author: Ana Lehmann
Editor: Anne Thomas