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The global demand for palm oil is driving the fires in Indonesia

Quartz logo Quartz 9/18/2019 Zoë Schlanger
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The smoke wafting from fires in the tropical forests of Indonesia—forming plumes big enough to blot out the sky in Malaysia and Singapore—is a reminder of a global supply chain run amok.

Whereas the devastating fires burning in the Amazon rainforest were set largely for cattle ranches that feed the global beef supply, officials say that 80% of the fires in Indonesia are being set to clear land for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is found in a huge number of products lining the shelves of grocery stores: everything from infant formula to chips to shampoo and toothpaste. And much of the global supply comes from Indonesia, the largest palm oil producer in the world. The country supplied 56% of the world’s palm oil last year.

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Indonesia’s tropical forests, which are being steadily deforested and burned by palm oil producers, are some of the world’s most important. Indonesian tropical forests are treasure troves of biodiversity, holding 10% of the world’s species of reptiles, birds, mammals, and fish. Much like the Amazon rainforest, they also store vast amounts of carbon in their soils and trees.

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When forests are cleared to create palm oil plantations, that stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. The oil palms that developers plant in the scorched earth also fail to serve any of the ecosystem functions that the original forest did. The species that lived in the forest—the iconic Bornean and Sumatran orangutans among them—die out, the local climate, stripped of its moisture-holding flora, dries out, and the soils become stripped of nutrients.

Palm oil plantations, in other words, make a wasteland out of paradise.

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The forests are burned deliberately by palm oil producers each year, but this year’s burns are especially destructive due to drier conditions that are causing the fires to burn out of control. Between 2001 and 2018, Indonesia lost 16% of its tree cover, or nearly 26 million hectares of forest, according to a database kept by Global Forest Watch. The loss of those forests released the equivalent of about 10.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions.

From 2008 to 2010, palm oil plantations were responsible for almost 60% of all deforestation in the country. Now, that figure is closer to 25%, according to a Duke University study. But that is not because the overall rate of deforestation has decreased. On the contrary, deforestation has increased in Indonesia overall, but now factors like drought are playing a growing role.

Major companies including Nestle, Mars, PepsiCo, and Unilever have committed to buying palm oil from companies who do not participate in deforestation. But oversight has proven to be lacking. A Greenpeace report last year found that the palm oil distributors that those companies buy from are, in fact, linked to land-clearing in the Indonesian forest, and released video evidence to prove it.

The Indonesian government has vowed to pursue criminal charges against palm oil companies burning the forest in recent weeks, and officials say they have arrested nearly 200 people connected to the fires. A recent government audit of plantations found that more than 80% of palm oil plantations in the country are failing to comply with regulations. The audit began after smoke from the annual fires in 2015 was so bad that it sickened hundreds of thousands of people and closed airports.

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Yet the Indonesian government has taken clear steps to protect its industry: Just last month, it banned products in grocery stores from bearing the label “palm oil-free,” Mongabay reports. Palm oil is also used in biofuel; when the European Commission passed a measure in March to ban palm oil-based biofuels by 2030, Indonesia threatened to pull out of the Paris climate agreement in protest. Along with Malaysia, the world’s second-largest palm oil producer, it also adopted retaliatory trade measures against the EU. The president of Indonesia has said he hopes to require diesel fuels in his country to be 100% palm oil in the future.

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Palm oil exports from Indonesia, meanwhile, surged this summer, driven mostly by demand from China; as African swine flu decimates China’s pork industry, there is less demand for soy for animal feed. That, in turn, has reduced the country’s production of soybean oil—and increase its demand for palm oil from Indonesia as an alternative. China’s imports of palm oil from Indonesia spiked by more than 50% in June.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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