Minister defends expansion of oil palm plantations

Hyginus Hardoyo ,  The Jakarta Post |  Wed, 11/19/2008
Agriculture Minister Anton Apriyantono on Tuesday defended Indonesia’s drive to expand oil palm plantations, despite a demand by environmentalists for a moratorium on deforestation.

Speaking in his keynote address at the opening of the sixth annual meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Nusa Dua, Bali, Apriyantono said any moratorium, including that recently called for by Greenpeace, was beyond the control of the Indonesian government.

The four-day meeting will discuss issues such as the certification program for members, palm oil small-scale growers, the RSPO and the government, and market standards for biofuel.

The RSPO was established by NGOs and business operators involved in the production, processing and sale of palm oil, in response to criticisms that oil palm plantations were causing rapid deforestation.

“The government has its own program of preserving our forests; we aim to keep 60 percent of our forests in addition to allocated protected forests,” the minister said.

He said Indonesia still had 23 million hectares of protected forest.

“Out of 133 million hectares of land, only 6.3 million hectares, or about 5 percent, have been planted with oil palms — arguably a very small area compared to what other countries have done with their natural forests,” Apriyantono said.

But data from independent monitor Sawit Watch shows that in addition to the land already planted, another 18 million hectares have been cleared for plantation expansions.

Sawit Watch deputy director Abetnego Tarigan said development programs by regional administrations were targeting oil palm plantation expansions — especially in Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Papua — of up to 20 million hectares.

“Another new plan still under negotiation deals with the development of the world’s largest oil palm plantation, covering 1.8 million hectares in the heart of Kalimantan,” he said.

Tarigan suggested that instead of expanding plantations, it was time to intensify existing estates and improve current yields of only 10 to 15 tons of palm oil per hectare per year — far less than the 25 tons per hectare per year recorded in Malaysia.

In 2006, Indonesia became the world’s largest producer of palm oil. Last year, total production reached 16.9 million tons and is projected to reach almost 18 million tons this year, or 26.2 percent of the world’s vegetable oil production.

Of the 2006 figure, 5 million tons was sold domestically, with 11.8 million tons exported, Apriyantono said.

“In term of palm oil exports, Indonesia managed to substantially raise foreign exchange earnings from only US$745 million in 1998 to $7.9 billion in 2007,” he said.

He added some 5 million smallholders were employed in the industry.

“I challenge everyone — NGOs and stakeholders — to come up with positive news of benefits as well as successful and positive multi-stakeholder collaborative projects,” the minister said.