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Al Jazeera English

Lungs of the World Are Choking

Step Vaessen

The lungs of the world are suffering from serious breathing problems. It struck me again when we drove for ten hours on a dirt road on the Indonesian island of Borneo without seeing... trees. I mean real firm standing trees with leaves. The once stunning rain forest has been replaced by a scenery that mostly resembles a graveyard. Undefinable bush on both sides of the road where blackened burned remains of trees are the only evidence that this used to be a forest. Borneo -- romantically described as the lungs of the world -- is not the most cheerful place on this planet.

The island has turned into a wild west area where loggers, miners and greedy officials rule.

Far away from the capital Jakarta logging permits, conservation assessments, sustainable palm oil are just abstract concepts of people wearing suits sitting in airconditioned offices. Here the rules of the jungle apply.

The minister of forestry had put it bluntly. "Two million hectares of forest has been illegally converted into palm oil plantations."

The real amount is probably higher. Large established Indonesian conglomerates violate the law without any repercussions.

During my thirteen years in Indonesia I have seen Borneo rapidly transforming into a monotone landscape of oil palm trees.

The director of Sinar Mas, Indonesia's largest palm oil producer called the illegal clearing "mistakes".

I asked him how he will correct these "mistakes" since the forest that is "mistakenly" cut down won't grow back that easily. He just stared at me.

Palm oil is Indonesia's second largest export product after oil and gas. Most of the buyers come from China and India.

In those countries no questions are asked about logging permits and sustainable palm oil.

European and Australian companies are under more and more pressure.

Since Greenpeace revealed that Sinar Mas is violating the law and breaching the international agreement on sustainable palm oil Unilever and Nestle have temporarily stopped purchases.

It is doubtful that this is enough to save the remaining forest.

When we bumped on that broken track for nearly thirty hours to find forest we could see this would not last very long. Chainsaws and heavy equipment next to improvised tents. Three thousand hectares had been cleared already.

The sun was burning relentlessly on the plain that was left after the destruction. Rainforest turns into desert when the trees are gone. The clearing had been suspended after an angry crowd of land owners forced the workers to stop since they had not been paid for their land.

Another law of the jungle, just grab the land of the locals.

Indonesia's president Yudhoyono is keen to be a main player in the world's fight against climate change.

Because of Illegal logging, especially in peatland areas, Indonesia is a major contributor to CO2 emission.

Randomly planting millions of trees now -- like the president is doing - will not save the planet. Stopping major companies from irresponsible behavior might.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Step Vaessen has reported on Asia for more than a decade.

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