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Palm oil versus paradise in Papua

Nils ZimmermannSeptember 1, 2016

On Indonesia's eastern islands, the last wild forests are being clear-cut and replaced with oil palm plantations. Although the product is practically indispensible, green groups say virgin land needn't be cleared for it.

Matschie's Tree Kangaroo (Dendrolagus matschiei Baumkänguru)
Image: picture-alliance/M. Iijima/ardea.com

The island of Papua is home to an exuberant array of animals. Tens of millions of years of continuous biological evolution on the archipelago of big tropical islands north of Australia have given rise to stunningly diverse ecosystems.

Tree kangaroos that look like big teddy bears (picture at top); wallabies, pademelons, cuscus, ringtails and sugar gliders; bandicoots and echidnas; dozens of bat and rodent species - about 80 percent of Papua's 357 known mammals are found nowhere else.

And birds, oh so many charming birds: a whole gamut of bird-of-paradise species, one more flamboyantly beautiful than the next; bellbirds, palm cockatoos and hornbills; hawk owls, kookaburras and flame bowerbirds; king parrots, golden mynas and spotted jewel babblers - the list of lovely avians flying the jungles of Papua is hundreds long.

A Wilson's bird of paradise (Photo: Imago/Nature Picture Library)
There are around forty different species of birds-of-paradise in Papua and Indonesia, including this Wilson's bird of paradiseImage: Imago/Nature Picture Library

But with deforestation ravaging the landscape, driven by humanity's ravenous appetite for palm oil, that list is getting shorter. All around the tropical world, including on the island of Papua, enormous oil palm monocultures are replacing the planet's most biodiverse natural forests.

Oceania's last stand

"West Papua and the nearby islands of North Maluku are Indonesia's final frontier," said Deborah Lapidus, a campaigner with Mighty Earth, a new global environmental campaign launched by the Washington-based Center for International Policy with partners in Korea and Indonesia.

"Most of Indonesia's other islands, like Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra, have already been largely deforested. But on West Papua, 80 percent of the natural forest is still intact."

For conservationists, the forest-blanketed islands of Papua and North Maluka are places to take a last stand on behalf of Oceania's biodiversity. For native Papuan tribes, including some as-yet uncontacted groups, the forests are their ancient homelands.

Oil palms, Papua (Photo: Aidenvironment)
Mature oil palms on a West Papua plantation, managed by Korindo conglomerate subsidiary PT TunasImage: Aidenvironment

And for loggers and oil palm plantation corporations, these territories are the commercial frontier, where land not yet "in production" is up for grabs. More than 27.6 million hectares of a total of 34.6 million hectares of forest in West Papua have been designated as "production forest" - that is, slated for logging or conversion to palm oil plantations.

Korindo: Spearhead of West Papua's deforestation

A Korean-Indonesian conglomerate called Korindo is now the leading driver of deforestation on the Indonesia-administered western half of Papua.

Founded by Korean businessman Eun-Ho Seung in 1969 as a spinoff from his father's logging business, Korindo now has 20,000 employees working for subsidiaries involved not only in timber, but also in heavy industries, cargo logistics, real estate and finance.

Korindo has also become a major palm oil producer. According to "Burning Paradise," an exposé released September 1, 2016, by Mighty Earth, Korindo has cleared more than 50,000 hectares of tropical lowland forest in Papua and North Maluku to make way for palm oil plantations - often through illegal burning - and it is aggressively expanding operations.

Tree kangaroo, Papua
A West Papuan tree kangaroo - the original tree-huggerImage: Greenpeace/G. Cubitt

Since 2013 alone, Korindo has cleared 30,000 hectares, 12,000 hectares of which were primary forest. Another 75,000 hectares of untouched forest remain at imminent risk of destruction in Korindo's palm oil concessions.

"Korindo is heralding a gold-rush-type land grab in the area of Indonesia with the largest intact rainforest landscapes," Lapidus said, "and bringing an outdated and destructive model of large-scale bulldoze-and-burn commodity agriculture to one of the most remote, highly forested and biodiverse areas left on Earth."

Two major palm oil wholesalers have stopped buying from Korindo as a result of the Mighty Earth investigation, according to Lapidus: Wilmar and Musim Mas. Along with two other major traders, ADM and IOI, these four companies are among the main global suppliers to consumer products corporations that use palm oil.

Palm oil production on the rise

Palm oil is an extraordinarily useful commodity tapped for the making of everything from pizza and candy bars to cosmetics, toothpaste and biodiesel fuel. Global production of palm oil has doubled over the last decade - partly due to European biofuel mandates - and is expected to double again by 2050.

Deforestation near Merauke, West Papua (Photo: Aidenvironment)
An area of ancient jungle freshly deforested by Korindo in preparation for conversion to oil palm plantationImage: Aidenvironment

Mighty Earth and other green groups want palm oil to be produced exclusively from lands that have long since been degraded - of which there are millions of hectares available - and not from fresh conversion of as-yet pristine forests.

And they want companies to restore forests by replanting native tree species - not oil palms - on recently deforested lands. While old-growth wild forests are the best wildlife habitat, forestry operations in managed second-growth forests built up from native tree species are less damaging to wildlife than oil-palm monocultures.

Lapidus said it isn't enough for individual corporate buyers of palm oil to claim they won't buy palm oil from freshly deforested areas, because their supply-chain monitoring is too lax: "We urgently need a transparent, systematic approach, as well as further action by government and prosecutors."

'Mighty Earth' wants corporate palm oil buyers to come together and jointly monitor their supply chain to ensure palm oil producers that engage in deforestation are shunned and excluded from the market.

It's an approach that was successfully applied to soy sourcing in Brazil, where corporate buyers took shared responsibility for effectively monitoring the supply chain and refuse to buy from soy producers that continue to cause deforestation. If the same approach is applied to palm oil, Mighty Earth hopes the destruction of tropical forests can be slowed.

Oil palm monoculture in Papua (Photo: Aidenvironment)
Right, pristine Papuan jungle, one of the most biodiverse landscapes on Earth - left, a Korindo oil palm monocultureImage: Aidenvironment

Demand limitation

In the end, however, it will be just as important to stop global demand for palm oil from rising inexorably, because rising demand is a key driver of ongoing tropical deforestation.

Two particular measures could help a lot, experts say: Ending legislated mandates for biofuels and driving down the price of algal oil, the only palm-oil substitute that requires much less land per ton of production than oil palm plantations.

Progress on either approach can't come a minute too soon for the endangered tree kangaroos and brilliantly colored birds of Papua and North Maluku.