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Dark side of a hot biofuel

In Indonesia, oil palms feed world thirst for clean fuel, but forests, climate and species pay a steep price

by Tom Knudson - tknudson@sacbee.com January 20, 2008

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, a worker arranges a load of cut palms for shipment to a facility to process their valuable oil. But palm plantations are taking a toll on forests and native species.
Photo gallery: A darker shade of green
Video: Orphaned by the thirst for oil

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Every morning, the cage doors swing open and 34 orangutan orphans climb into the outstretched arms of their human mothers.

Grabbing at wrists, tugging at elbows, these baby apes cling to the young women like Velcro, happy to be free of their cages, to play in the dappled sun of the nearby forest for a few hours.

It's primate day care, a scene that seems choreographed for the Animal Planet channel. But this spectacle of one hominid helping another is more than entertainment. It is a genuine reflection of environmental collapse.

These rust-red fluff balls were born in the wild, in the steamy, lime-green rain forest of tropical Indonesia. Today this jungle is being leveled and its great apes captured, killed and orphaned to grow palm oil, a plantation crop refined into biofuel for environmentally conscious consumers in Europe and the United States.

We live in a world of wanna-be-green commerce, of guilt-ridden citizens eager to protect nature, shrink their carbon footprints and free themselves from Middle East oil. But not every new fuel and eco-friendly product soothes the planet. Some are saddled with environmental baggage of their own, with not-so-obvious links to pollution, climate change and deforestation.

During the past year, supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, I have reported on two such cases: a gourmet line of "conservation-based" Starbucks coffee that was grown on a plantation in a threatened Ethiopian rain forest and a petroleum substitute fueling U.S. cars that was strip-mined from Canada's boreal forest.

Nothing captured my attention like the orphaned orangutans of Indonesia. Here was a new generation of primates with no forest to explore, no mothers to mimic. Yet they clowned around at my feet, nearly stole my backpack and played tug of war with a stick. Other endangered species don't do that.

As symbols of environmental change, orangutans are hard to beat. But their struggle is more than a tale of paradise lost. It is also – through the logging of Indonesia's great rain forests and the resulting massive release of carbon into the atmosphere – a story with a broader connection to the warming of the Earth's atmosphere and mankind's role in triggering it.

By coincidence, my November visit came just ahead of the largest global climate gathering in years, a United Nations conference in the Indonesian resort community of Bali.

As delegates from nearly 190 nations met to lay the groundwork for a global warming treaty, another climate drama with worldwide implications was unfolding 400 miles to the north across the pale blue Java Sea in Borneo and farther west in Sumatra.

Where a rich rain forest once stood, storing carbon in its roots, branches, trunks and soil, vast fields of oil palms stretched across the landscape, displacing native people and leaving some of the world's most majestic creatures – from Sumatran tigers to orangutans – without a home.

"There is no greater curse for orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra than palm oil plantations," said Birutι Galdikas, one of the world's leading primate scientists, who lives in Indonesia but spends part of the year in Los Angeles, home to her nonprofit group: Orangutan Foundation International. "People who buy palm oil have orangutan blood on their hands."


Growing taste for palm oil as fuel


For more than 30 years, Indonesia's oil palm plantations have fed a global market for vegetable oil, most used in everyday food products from cream cheese to candy bars, cookies to hamburger buns. As concern about climate change and oil prices has grown, interest in palm oil as a green, renewable fuel has soared.

The trend began in Europe a decade or so ago when governments began subsidizing companies to blend soybean, palm and other vegetable oils with diesel to reduce carbon emissions. Since 2004, biodiesel production has more than doubled in Europe to 4.9 million metric tons.

Now biodiesel is catching on in the United States. Last year, the nation's largest biodiesel plant, supplied in part with palm oil, opened in Washington state. In 2007, 15 million gallons of palm oil were offloaded in Southern California, where it helped power cruise ships and semi-trailer trucks.

Regulators are increasingly uneasy. This week, European Union officials plan to propose a law to ban the import of biodiesel derived from crops grown on recently destroyed forests. California's own alternative fuels plan says palm oil should "come from plantations whose creation does not disrupt that habitat of rare species."

Wade Randlett, co-founder of NextFuels Inc., the San Francisco company that imported the 15 million gallons of palm oil to California, said his supplies – from Malaysia and Indonesia – meet that test.

"Every drop is from a sustainable source," he said. "Not one square foot of rain forest has been destroyed."

The difficulty of tracing palm oil – a bulk commodity blended and shipped in giant batches – to specific land management practices in the tropics makes some biofuel entrepreneurs wary.

"Palm-based biodiesel, practiced poorly, is an environmental disaster," said Eric Bowen, chairman of the California Biodiesel Alliance. "You've got orangutan populations under pressure. You've got deforestation going on."

Environmental concerns prompted food and biodiesel companies to join with conservation groups in 2003 to form the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which promotes more eco-friendly production, including sowing plantations on land already cleared for farming instead of in rain forests.

Not all environmentalists think the group can live up to its name.

"How can (palm oil) be sustainable if it's causing so much destruction?" said Leila Salazar-Lopez, agribusiness campaign director with the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco.


Expansion becomes disaster, critic says


The roots of Indonesia's palm oil expansion reach back 3 1/2 decades, when the government of former President Suharto set aside vast swaths of forest for logging and plantations. Overcutting caused widespread damage and continues to be a problem, according to Lisa Curran, a Yale University professor of tropical resources.

So little wood remains on legal timber concessions that companies log illegally inside national parks and other protected areas, Curran wrote in a 2004 article in the journal Science. Once forests are logged of valuable trees, they often are cleared for oil palm plantations, Curran noted.

"Oil palm is a disaster all the way around for biodiversity if converted from logged forest or peat swamp," Curran – the recipient of a 2006 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award for her work on Indonesia's deforestation – wrote in an e-mail. "Oil palm is fine if they actually put it on totally degraded lands – but they don't."

Indonesia's government believes there is still plenty of land left for nature, said Riaz Saehu, a spokesman for the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, D.C. But, he said, in recent years it also has begun taking a more cautious approach toward oil palm plantations.

"There is an effort to reduce plantation expansion," Saehu said, pointing out that palm oil plantations now cover about 15 million acres – roughly the size of 20 Yosemite National Parks – up from 1.5 million acres in 1986. "What we do now is basically to promote sustainability."

Curran, who also directs Yale's Tropical Resources Institute, has her doubts. "After 23 years there I must say they can talk the talk but never walk the walk," she said.

And what about the palm oil industry? "It's wrong to say palm oil destroys the forest," said Siam Maksum, a safety officer for the sprawling Astra Agro Lestari plantation whom I met at a business exhibition in south-central Borneo. "We are not responsible for that."

Maksum showed me a movie about palm oil and gave me a brochure about the promise of biodiesel. His company is the largest palm oil producer in Indonesia and, he said, it brought jobs, schools and opportunity to the hinterlands.


Plantation destroys rain forest riches


My first glimpse of a palm oil plantation came on the back of a motor scooter flying along the mud-slick back roads of Sumatra with members of an indigenous tribe, the Kubu people. They drove, sometimes wildly. I hung on and hoped for the best.

For mile after muggy mile, the palm trees flew by, growing in long, shadowy rows like an oversized Iowa cornfield. Here and there, we passed charred stumps, reminders of the cathedral-like rain forest that once defined this landscape. At one spot, where the land had been bulldozed for new planting, pinkish-red soil was bleeding into a creek.

Through an interpreter, the Kubu told me they had lived for generations off the riches of the rain forest – its fish, deer, plants and turtles. Now, their jungle pantry was lean. "Before, there were many animals," said Abas, a Kubu leader, who like some Indonesians uses just one name. "Today, there is hardly anything."

We kept moving, fishtailing through muddy spots, splashing through puddles, until we came to a tiny village of stick huts surrounded by oil palms, where a bronze-skinned mother of five invited me inside for a visit. She said her name was Anna.

"I am a victim," said Anna, who wore only blue shorts and a black bra. "I have lost my garden. I cannot grow the rubber, bananas, chiles and other things I need to feed my family." A plantation palm oil tree grew in Anna's front yard.

A village leader named Matt Aman joined the conversation. Years ago, this corner of Sumatra was a chorus of birdsong, he said. Now, an eerie quiet grips the land – a silent spring all year long.

"There are no sounds from the birds anymore," he said.


Deforestation unlocks carbon gases


A day's drive north of the Kubu villages in the palm oil capital of Indonesia, Riau province, deforestation is stirring a global debate over climate change.

All deforestation contributes to global warming, of course, by releasing carbon long stored in trunks, leaves and branches back into the atmosphere. But Indonesia's forests – especially its soggy peat jungles being drained and burned for palm oil plantations – are special.

Locked inside those forests and swamp-like thickets is a Fort Knox of carbon – about 24 billion tons – that has been captured from the atmosphere over eons through the magic of photosynthesis. Now deforestation is opening those vaults.

"First, there is a natural compaction that takes place. The peat sinks," said Art Klassen, regional director for the Tropical Forest Foundation, a science-based U.S. nonprofit group. "Then there is the natural oxidation of the upper layer. Because of the sun, there is greater biological activity, which decomposes that peat, completely releasing CO2 and oxidizing it."

Indonesia's deforestation-related carbon releases have lately drawn global attention because of their scale. A recent World Bank report put the loss at 2.6 billion tons a year – out of a national total of 3 billion tons – making the impoverished nation the third largest source of climate-warming carbon dioxide on Earth, behind China and the United States.

"Indonesia! Who would have thought it?" said Galdikas, the primate scientist in Jakarta. "It's because of the massive burning of forests for palm oil, used for biofuel. It's enough to make you support Saudi Arabian oil."

The week I visited Riau province, Greenpeace activists aboard the Rainbow Warrior were blockading a shipment of palm oil off its coast. A large banner tied to the ship's masts read: "Palm Oil Kills Forests & Climate."


As land cleared, wildlife driven out


Riau province also is home to one of the rarest mammals on Earth: the Sumatran tiger. Fewer than 350 are believed to survive in the wild. And as plantations expand – for palm oil and for acacia trees, grown for pulp and paper – many scientists fear the worst.

"The tiger is going to go extinct if we don't do something," said Sunarto, a wildlife biologist in the regional capital of Pekanbaru.

On several occasions, Sunarto said he has returned to tiger study areas only to find the rain forest mowed down to make way for plantations. "It's very sad," he said. "The trees are gone. The animals are gone."

Still, Sunarto soldiers on. The jungle where he works is sticky-hot, soggy-wet and buggy. Every member of his research team, Sunarto included, has come down with malaria. "We say we are going to put malaria on our rιsumιs," he joked.

A similar spirit motivates researchers 700 miles east on the island of Borneo where the object of attention is Asia's only great ape – the orangutan.

"Orangutans are almost ancestors," said Galdikas, a protιgιe of the late anthropologist Louis Leakey. "They share 97 percent of their genetic material with us. They are basically what we once were before we left the Garden of Eden. Do we want orangutans to disappear from the face of the Earth as biologically viable populations?"

Now 61, Galdikas arrived in Borneo in 1971 when she was 25 and Borneo was one of the wildest places on Earth. She built a research station on the swampy southern coast, named it Camp Leakey and set out to study and live with orangutans in the wild.

Over the years, she's had more scrapes and close calls than Indiana Jones. Once, she said, she was kidnapped by loggers and held at knifepoint. "It was about forests," Galdikas said as she sat calmly in her quiet home in Jakarta. "They beat me. I have teeth missing. I can talk about it now because it was 17 years ago."

Since then, she said, the struggle against illegal logging largely has been won. Camp Leakey is part of Tanjung Puting National Park, which Galdikas helped create. But now, she said, palm oil plantations represent a bigger threat.

"They just clear the forest," she said. "They take out the valuable timber and the rest they burn. And in the process, they drive out all the wildlife. When the burning is over, orangutans become refugees."

Many of those homeless orangutans – along with others rescued from an illegal pet trade – end up at the care and rehabilitation center Galdikas directs just outside Pankalabuun, where they are given names and impress the volunteers with their antics and aptitude.

Consider Kristen, a 22-year-old female. "She's extremely intelligent," said Jodie Sheridan, an Australian volunteer at the facility. "One day, she escaped from her cage, took herself straight to the vet's kitchen, mixed up a sugary mess and walked herself back to the cage."

Designed a decade ago for 40 animals, the center's orangutan population has ballooned to 325. "That's the most we've ever had," said Waliyati, the care center's manager. "Every year, we get 60 to 80 more."

Over the past year, the number of orphaned orangutan babies and toddlers has more than doubled, from 15 to 34.


"A refugee camp" of orangutans


An orphaned orangutan is a biological fire alarm. Few species bond more closely to their mothers. In the wild, a baby orangutan swings and dangles from its mother for at least three years, then remains with her for five more. In the wild, an orangutan orphan is an oxymoron.

Why, then, are so many orphans turning up at the care center? Galdikas and six other orangutan scientists and care workers I interviewed maintain that more and more it's because their mothers are shot or bludgeoned to death while foraging for food on palm oil plantations.

"They actually hire hunters to kill them because they view them as agricultural pests," Galdikas said. "The police have told me that."

Shortly after Sheridan arrived to volunteer at the care center in early 2006, she was shown some photos of a young male orangutan that had recently been mortally wounded in a palm oil plantation. In two of the pictures, which I later received via e-mail, the limp body of an orangutan is sprawled beneath a palm oil tree. Its mouth hangs open. Its right eye is swollen shut.

"People here were phoned to come and pick him up. But by the time they got there, he'd been beaten so badly that he only lived for two days," Sheridan said. "There are close-ups of his face and they've taken a big bat, a big lump of wood to him. And you've got all these palm oil workers standing around his body on the ground."

It's difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint who is killing orangutans. But Siam Maksum, the palm oil safety officer in Pangkalanbuun, told me his company is not to blame. "The orangutan never comes to our plantation because the land is already degraded," he said.

What about other companies? I asked.

"I have no idea," he said.

At the time of my visit to the care center, the newest orphan was Sirdado, who had arrived on Nov. 7. He was found wandering in a palm oil plantation, reported Fajar Dewanto, the field supervisor with Orangutan Foundation International in Borneo who organized the rescue.

His mother was missing – a telltale clue. "If we find an infant, we know the mother has been killed," Dewanto said.

Though Sirdado was tucked away in quarantine, swarms of other primate preschoolers tumbled around on the ground in a makeshift playground and swung through some branches. Others held tight to their new human mothers.

Touching, yes. But tragic, too.

"The number of orangutans in rehabilitation centers is simply a symptom of how fast the forest is going," said Stephen Brend, a British zoologist who works at the facility.

"It's a major burden and a real horror story," he added. "It's just a refugee camp."




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