Activists denounce plan to allow palm oil firms in peatlands

Adianto P. Simamora : THE JAKARTA POST : Mon 16 February 2009 

Environmental activists have mounted a challenge against the government's plan to allow palm oil companies to set up plantations in the country's remaining peatlands.

Greenpeace Southeast Asia says the plan runs counter to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's promise to halve emissions from the forestry sector by 2009. The President made the pledge during the climate change conference in Bali in 2007 and at the G7 summit in Hokkaido, Japan, last year.

"Opening up peatlands would cause huge carbon emissions into the atmosphere that can't be compensated for, including by oil palm trees," Greenpeace forest campaigner Yuyun Indradi told The Jakarta Post on Sunday.

He called on Yudhoyono to take action to halt the conversion of peatlands, or risk the failure of efforts to tackle climate change.

"The government needs to protect the remaining peatlands and forests if we are to slow down climate change and protect the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities and biodiversity," he said.

The government has promised to cut emissions, including from the forestry sector, by 50 percent in 2009, 75 percent in 2012, and 95 percent in 2025.

The National Action Plan on mitigation and adaptation on climate change revealed the country's agriculture sector contributed up to 96.42 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2005.

The Agriculture Ministry said it would issue a decree this year allowing businesses to open up peatlands for oil palm plantations, as part of efforts to boost the country's crude palm oil (CPO) production.

Ecosys, a European-based institute dealing with energy, carbon and biofuel issues, estimates that peatlands planted with oil palms would emit about 0.46 kilograms of CO2 per megajoule (MJ).

Indonesia has about 20 million hectares of dense, black tropical peat swamps that are natural carbon storage sinks.

Fitrian Ardiansyah, head of WWF Indonesia's climate change and energy program, said the government should prioritize exploiting millions of hectares of idle land if it wanted to expand the CPO business.

"We currently have more than 7 million hectares of idle land. Why does the government not utilize this before opening up forests or peatlands?" he said.

Demand for CPO has risen globally, spurred on by the development of the biofuel industry.

However, scientists warn the use of crop-based biofuels could speed up rather than slow down global warming, by fueling the destruction of rainforests.

Once heralded as the answer to oil, biofuels have become increasingly controversial because of their impact on food prices and the amount of energy it takes to produce them.

They may also be responsible for pumping far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than they could possibly save as a replacement for fossil fuels, according to a study released Saturday.

"If we run our cars on biofuels produced in the tropics, chances will be good that we are effectively burning rainforests in our gas tanks," Holly Gibbs, of Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, was quoted as saying by AFP.

Gibbs studied satellite photos of the tropics from 1980 to 2000, and found that half of new farmland came from intact rainforests, with another 30 percent from disturbed forests.

"When trees are cut down to make room for new farmland, they are usually burned, sending their stored carbon into the atmosphere as CO2," Gibbs said.

For high-yield crops like sugarcane, it would take 40 to 120 years to pay back this carbon debt. For lower yield crops like corn or soybeans, it would take 300 to 1,500 years, she told reporters at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"Biofuels have caused alarm because of how quickly production has been growing: global ethanol production increased by four times and biodiesel by 10 times between 2000 and 2007," she said.

"Moreover, agricultural subsidies in Indonesia and in the United States are providing added incentives to increase production of these crops."

Gibbs estimated that anywhere from a third to two-thirds of recent deforestation could be as a result of the increased demand for biofuels, but added an increased demand for food and feed also played a major role.

Much of the expansion of cropland in response to growing demand and rising prices is occurring in the tropics, where there is an abundance of arable land and an ideal growing climate for biofuel crops like sugarcane, soybeans and oil palms.