Freshly burned land in Indonesia has already been illegally planted with oil palm, new evidence suggests, following the loss of two million hectares of forest and peatland since July to fires.
Planted in charred earth, the oil palm saplings were identified near the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Sanctuary in central Kalimantan, by Greenpeace Indonesia. According to public maps, no oil palm concession has been granted in the area. During a dry season exacerbated by El Niño, thousands of fires have ripped through Indonesian forests in Sumatra and Kalimantan over recent months, sparking a region-wide haze crisis and releasing alarming levels of carbon emissions.
With half of the hotspots on carbon-rich peatland, over the past month carbon emissions from the fires have surpassed the average daily emissions of the entire US economy. Predominately lit by smallholder farmers who use slash and burn techniques to clear the land – the fires are the fastest and cheapest way to clear land for new plantations. In the wake of the destruction, environmentalists are calling on the forest areas to be fully restored and for the palm oil industry’s role in the fires to be thoroughly examined. Under the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) made in September 2014, major producers that operate in Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, commited to sustainable palm oil practices and zero-deforestation.
The signatories to IPOP – Wilmar, Asian Agri, Cargill, GAR and Musim Mas– account for 80% of the palm oil industry in Indonesia. To live up to their commitments, conservation scientist Eric Meijaard says these leading producers have to address the fire crisis in a tangible way.
“With these fires all the burn scars need to be mapped and any oil that is subsequently grown on these burnt lands should just stay out of the responsible market,” Meijaard told the Guardian, “They have to somehow develop the tracing systems that allow them to confidently say that none of this came from lands that were burned in 2015.”
But in the complicated web that forms the Indonesian palm oil sector, palm oil giants operate their own plantations and mills, but also source a sizeable amount of oil palm from independent smallholders, in some cases up to 40%. The problem is that, with brokers and middlemen and an estimated 4 million smallholder farmers, fresh bunches of oil palm fruit might change hands several times before reaching the mill. While on paper the IPOP commitments extend to third-party suppliers, including the smallholder farmers blamed for lighting the fires, in reality opaque supply chains mean palm oil producers don’t always know who all of their suppliers are, nor what practices they are engaged in. It makes for a complicated accountability trail, says Tomoyuki Uno, Asia manager of the UN Development Programme’s green commodities programme. “Palm oil might be coming from the national parks but as long as you don’t know about it, or they are three or four different supply chains removed from you, you might not be implicated,” he says.
More official supply chains, he argued, will facilitate better protection of forests as well as better governance and productivity. In the past week rains have helped to dampen the hotspots and lift the toxic haze, but the fires are an annual problem in Indonesia and this year they are among the worst on record. In an email to the Guardian, a representative from the palm oil giant Wilmar said the company was strictly committed to a no burning policy, but cutting off smallholders who slash and burn was not the answer.
“Cutting off these smallholders from our supply chain may sound like an easy solution but it does not help address the fire and haze issue, and is not one that Wilmar encourages,” they wrote, “Such a move may have a devastating impact on livelihoods of smallholders and may potentially even lead to more deforestation.” The Indonesian government has recently been pushing the same message, arguing that smallholders aren’t yet ready to entirely live up to the to zero-deforestation pledges. The government has targeted certifying 70% of palm oil producers under its ISPO standards (Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil) by 2020, but so far these efforts have not been focused on smallholders. In a sector riddled with grey areas, traceability is just one problem but an issue that needs to be addressed to ensure greater accountability before the fires come around, says Greenpeace’s Maitar.
“Of course they say it is complicated, it takes time, but you know, there is no time. They should move quickly, otherwise the time will pass again,” he says, “The rainy season is coming and then everyone will forget about these fires again.”
Author: Kate Lamb
Source: The Guardian