NGO Fights Plantations in Kalimantan
Pangkalan Bun. In the forests of Central Kalimantan Province, a small environmental group is using education to arm villagers against the devastating onslaught of palm oil plantations.
Yayasan Orangutan Indonesia, or Yayorin, was founded in 1991 to save endangered orangutans, other wildlife and the forests they need to survive. Since then the spread of plantations into forests on Sumatra and Borneo islands have helped make Indonesia the world’s third-biggest greenhouse-gas source, partly due to the craze for “eco-friendly” biofuels.
They have also wiped out habitats of threatened species like orangutans and Bornean clouded leopards. But the plantations are also hurting people whose traditional communities depend on the forests and the biodiversity they contain, and that is where Yayorin director and founder Togu Simorangkir sees hope for change.
“The problem of deforestation is human,” said the biologist. “That’s why 80 percent of our program focuses on education. It’s not enough just to give the message ‘stop cutting down trees.’ You have to explain the consequences of deforestation.”
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, which is used in a range of products including soap, cooking oil and biodiesel.
Vast tracts of forest have already disappeared under plantations and the government is encouraging more, despite its stated commitment to lowering greenhouse gas emissions by preserving the carbon stored in jungles. In 1990 there were 1.1 million hectares of land under plantations, according to official figures. Now there are 7.6 million hectares.
“We’ve heard some terrible stories,” said Daryatmo, the chief of Tumbang Tura, a village in the province. “Neighbors [who sold forested land to palm planters] can’t grow ratan anymore or harvest rubber. Fishing is impossible because the river is polluted. These are our principal sources of income. What kind of legacy are we going to leave?”
Lured by immediate “wealth” in the form of a few thousand dollars, villagers often are not aware of the consequences of selling to palm planters, Simorangkir said.
“Last year a plantation company offered a village Rp 2 billion [$176,000] to exploit its land. Every family calculated that that would bring them Rp 30 million each,” he said. “Village authorities sought our advice and we told them the consequences for the environment in the medium term. Despite the bait, they concluded by refusing the project.”
The NGO’s projects are spread across villages, plantations, companies, schools and government agencies. But will this be enough to save orangutans? There are now an estimated 40,000 wild orangutans on Borneo, but the United Nations estimates there could be less than 1,000 by 2023.
Palm oil companies have been clearing orangutan habitats in Borneo despite signing up to voluntary standards under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, comprised of industry and environmental groups.
The Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association, rejecting a moratorium on plantations proposed by Greenpeace last year, said the RSPO standards would protect the species.
But the Center for Orangutan Protection says orangutans living outside Central Kalimantan’s conservation areas could die in three years. Of the 20,000 there, close to 3,000 die every year, it says.
“Their future is in the north of the Central Kalimantan region,” said Stephen Brend of Orangutan Foundation International.