NEW YORK - Major U.S. companies are adding to the impending threat of global warming as they drive the production of palm oil in Indonesia's tropical forests, says a new study by an international environmental organization.
According to the study released by Greenpeace International this week, Indonesia is losing its peat forests at a rapid pace due to massive operations by U.S.-based commercial concerns engaged in palm oil extraction.
Palm oil is widely used in food and cosmetic products, and, therefore, its demand is constantly on the rise, said Greenpeace researchers who conducted the study.
Indonesia's tropical forests are considered by the scientific community to be some of the world's great "carbon sinks," and hence a solid defense in the fight against global warming.
The report, entitled "Cooking the Climate," comes at a time when world leaders are preparing to gather in the Indonesian city of Bali next month to decide next steps to combat climate change after the Kyoto agreement expires in 2012.
The Greenpeace report shows how companies are driving peatland destruction in the Indonesian province of Riau on the island of Sumatra, currently home to 25 percent of the country's palm oil plantations.
There are plans to expand the area under concession by more than 11,000 square miles, which would deforest and cover half the province with plantations, said the report's authors.
In a statement, they expressed fears of "devastating consequences" for Riau's peatlands, noting that these lands have already been seriously degraded by industrial development and store a massive 14.6 billion tons of carbon -- roughly one year's global greenhouse gas emissions.
Research conducted by Greenpeace from its Forest Defenders Camp in Riau also documents how a major Indonesian palm oil producer is engaging in "the large-scale, illegal destruction of peatland in flagrant violation" of an Indonesian presidential order and national forestry regulations.
Palm oil is fed into the supply chain for global brands such as Pringles potato chips and KitKat candy. Major multinational companies are all named in the report for turning a blind eye to peatland destruction in their quest for cheap vegetable oil.
Among others, they include Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM), Burger King, Cargill, Dove Soap, Kraft, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever. According to Greenpeace, they are driving the demand for palm oil used in products such as Oreo cookies and Philadelphia Cream Cheese.
Currently, the destruction of Indonesian peatlands accounts for about 4 percent of annual global carbon emissions, Greenpeace said.
"This investigation shows that a handful of international corporations are ultimately responsible for slashing and burning Indonesia's peatland forests for food, fuel, and laundry detergent," said Emmy Hafild, executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
In Hafild's words, "some of the best known brands in the world are literally cooking the climate."
The report's authors also expressed concern about the consequences of palm oil's use as a "biofuel," and said that replacing forests and peatlands with palm oil plantations would release more carbon dioxide than is saved by burning biofuels in place of diesel fuel.
Scientists say forest destruction is responsible for about one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.
"At next month's UN climate conference in Bali, political leaders must wake up to the fact that we need to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions -- and make them fast," said Rolf Skar, a Greenpeace forests campaigner.
"Protecting peatlands and other forest areas from destruction is one of the most simple, cost-effective insurance options against global warming."
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