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Indonesian NGO Backs Villagers in Fight Against Palm Oil


Orangutans at Pringen Safari park in Pasuruan. Deep in the forests of Indonesian Borneo, a small environmental group is using education and common sense to arm villagers against the devastating onslaught of palm plantations (AFP/File/Aman Rahman)

PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia - Deep in the forests of Indonesian Borneo, a small environmental group is using education and common sense to arm villagers against the devastating onslaught of palm plantations.

Yayasan Orangutan Indonesia (Yayorin) was founded in 1991 with the goal of saving Indonesia's endangered orangutans and other wildlife as well as the forests that those species need to survive.

Since then the spread of palm oil plantations into forests and peatlands on Sumatra and Borneo islands have helped make Indonesia the world's third-highest greenhouse gas emitter, thanks partly 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.

"We think that above all the problem of deforestation is human," said the 32-year-old biologist in Pangkalan Bun village in the heart of Central Kalimantan province.

"That's why 80 percent of our programme focuses on education. It's not enough just to give the message 'stop cutting down trees'. You have to explain the consequences of deforestation in the short and long term."

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 palm 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 (2.7 million acres) of land under palm oil plantation in Indonesia, according to official figures. This year there are 7.6 million hectares.

"We've heard some terrible stories," said Daryatmo, the chief of Tumbang Tura village in Central Kalimantan.

"Our neighbours (who sold their forested land to palm planters) can't grow ratan anymore or harvest rubber. Fishing is impossible because the river is polluted," he said.

"These are our principal sources of income. What kind of legacy are we going to leave our grandchildren?"

Lured by immediate "wealth" in the form of a few thousands dollars in cash, people in forest-dependent communities often are not aware of the consequences of selling out to the palm planters, Simorangkir said.

"Last year a plantation company offered a village two billion rupiah (176,000 dollars) to exploit its land. Every family calculated that that would bring them 30 million (2,640 dollars) each," he said.

"The 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 followed up by helping the villagers improve their subsistence-level agriculture techniques, he said.

With projects spread across several villages as well as plantations, companies, schools and government agencies, Simorangkir said he hoped Yayorin could help make a difference in the battle to save Indonesia's forests.

But will such initiatives be enough to save the "man of the forest," the orangutan?

There are currently an estimated 40,000 wild orangutans on Borneo but the United Nations estimates there could be fewer than 1,000 by 2023.

Palm oil companies have been clearing orangutan habitats on Borneo despite signing up to voluntary standards under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a talking shop for industry and environmental groups.

The Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association, in rejecting a moratorium on new plantations proposed by Greenpeace last year, argued that the RSPO standards were enough to protect the species.

But the Centre for Orangutan Protection says orangutans living outside Central Kalimantan's conservation areas could be wiped out within three years. Of the roughly 20,000 individuals in Central Kalimantan province, close to 3,000 die every year, it says.

"Their future is in the north of the Central Kalimantan region, which at the present time is preserved. The belt of palm oil plantations must not extend to the north," said Stephen Brend of Orangutan Foundation International.


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