Though no larger than Texas, the island of Borneo is home to over 15,000 species of plants. Its rainforests are prowled by iconic and rare species like the orangutan, Sumatran rhinoceros, and clouded leopard. Moreover, Borneo's biota is still comparatively unknown: Scientists have discovered 123 new species since 2007.
But, when I visited Borneo, I was less struck by its 15,000 native species than by a single, ubiquitous invader: the oil palm tree. Palm plantations have overcome Borneo's forests, a coup that is both an environmental catastrophe and a powerful emblem of the global economy. For Borneo's sake, and the world's, we must redress the market forces that have blighted the island and all of Southeast Asia with palm oil.
Borneo can thank the EU for many of its problems. In 2003, the EU set an ambitious goal for its member nations: Meet 10% of transportation-related energy needs through biofuels. The resolution may have been a well-intentioned campaign aimed at mitigating carbon emissions, but its implementation has been a disaster.
Palm oil is the most efficient source of biodiesel in the world — it is vastly more potent than corn and soy-based fuel — and its production surged in Southeast Asia as a result of the EU decision, nowhere more dramatically than in Borneo. Malaysia and Indonesia, two of the three countries that jointly possess the island, produce 86% of the world's palm oil; millions of hectares of primary forest in those nations have been cut down to make way for plantations. Consequently, Borneo's biodiversity may not survive: The UN estimates that 98% of orangutan habitats could be lost by 2022.
The irony is that palm plantations do not mitigate global warming; they exacerbate it. First, the felling and burning of tropical forests releases carbon, stored in the trees, into the atmosphere. Global deforestation is responsible for 25% to 30% of annual carbon emissions. Furthermore, many palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia are established atop specialized ecosystems called peatlands, thick swamps of organic material. These peatlands are dried out and burned to make room for palm oil, and release staggering quantities of sequestered carbon in the process. According to Wetlands International scientist Michael Silvius, "We have clearly proven that palm oil produced on tropical peatlands is unsustainable and contributes more CO2 to the atmosphere than use of fossil fuels."
Despite its many ills, palm oil has been something of a social success in Southeast Asia. The industry has generated over $12.4 billion in exports in Indonesia in 2009, provided millions of jobs, and created a middle class of landowners in some areas. Some in Southeast Asia feel that Western attempts to curtail palm oil production are a latter-day form of White Man's Burden, and that palm oil will help Indonesia and Malaysia achieve first-world standards of living.
Although Borneo must transition away from palm plantations, the international community cannot pull the rug out from beneath the farmers who depend on palm oil. Any alternative source must provide for the economic survival of Malaysians and Indonesians. There are three main ways in which this balance can be achieved.
First, fully developed nations can pay developing countries to conserve their forests. The entire international community has a stake in maintaining a stable climate, and reducing deforestation is vital to that goal. In 2010, Norway set a precedent by committing $1 billion to the Indonesian government to help the country cut its emissions by 26%. The money will initially go toward developing a plan for carbon reductions and then serve as an incentive to hit targets. By providing funds for climate change mitigation, developed countries can incentivize conservation, instead of deforestation.
Second, by supporting conscientious forestry companies in Southeast Asia, Western consumers can promote alternatives to palm oil. Although Malaysia and Indonesia would preserve their forests in a perfect world, even strict conservationists are beginning to embrace logging as the lesser of two evils. Sustainably logged forests support high levels of biodiversity, and tropical forests grow back quickly; from an ecological perspective, a legally logged forest is far superior to a palm tree monoculture. Unfortunately, timber is not always as profitable for farmers as palm oil, but consumers can close the gap by choosing sustainable timber.
Finally, we can eliminate biofuel stipulations from national energy plans. We should be transitioning away from fossil fuels and be moving in the direction of solar, wind, and tidal energy. Biofuels have proven disastrous, and yet we are still doggedly pursuing them; it is time that we stopped this lunacy. Palm oil and other biofuels will not solve global warming; if anything, they contribute to our planet's changing climate.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons