Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Why does anyone cut down Indonesia rainforest?

After I reported on the Mattel-Greenpeace standoff over packaging sourcing, friends in LA who rely on me to tell them the news asked: why does anyone cut down rainforest? My generally over informed friends - people at KPCC - said, wait, I thought they were slowing down with the cutting, what's the big deal? 

Those questions aren't silly. With a little checking I figured out that nobody's said VERY much about this in recent years on the radio in the US. And if you listen to stories about how Indonesia had its own Million Tree planting like Los Angeles did, but 79 times larger, you might think, oh, that problem's solved, on to polar bears.  

So, first, obviously, people cut 'em down for money: paper sells. The trees are good for pulping; major companies in Indonesia use 'em in paper. Logging has slowed down. Some: but a widely-cited 2007 report of the United Nations Environment Program projected that illegal logging is so rampant, Indonesia might be out of forest to cut down by 2022. 

For those forests Greenpeace is worried about with regard to Barbie, they're attractive for another reason: a second product foresters looking to shake out of that land is palm oil. (These are kernels from oil palm trees.)

What's palm oil for? What's it NOT for, is more like it. Check the back of your boxed, processed food. Odds are decent that palm oil's in there. (Took about 3 minutes at my house - a box of Orville Redenbacher that my sister bought before she realized I don't have a microwave.) Palm Oil can come from a lot of places - I'm not saying Orville bought his in Indonesia. (Though I don't know where Orville DID buy his.) What I can say - according to the USDA - Indonesia dommos the palm oil market. 21 million tons, according to stats, in 2009 - mostly crude palm oil. Full of fat; stable on the shelf; perfect for processed food. 

Here's the general narrative, in brief: 

  1. Someone cuts down rainforest trees (you know, the mixed tropical hardwoods they find in toy packaging)
  2. They burn or remove stumps of those trees. And release the carbon, and expose the nutrient-rich soil, deadening the soil's potency some.
  3. Then they plant oil palm trees in a plantation. 

Same thing happens with peat lands - which definitely aren't supposed to be messed with in Indonesia.

Indonesia does have forest concessions: just like the United States does...sort of. In Indonesia, according to the World Bank, "[r]equirements to submit an accurate inventory of forest resources and carry out environmental impact assessment are rarely adhered to. Weak supervision allows these breaches of the law to pass unchecked." Studies by the World Bank and NGOs have found Swiss-cheese sized holes in every piece of the enforcement puzzle: not enough rangers, no judicial follow-through on cases, no inventory requirements. Indonesia doesn't make its own stated goals for forestry management; it seeks help from the international community. 

The problem of how to manage forest lands in Indonesia and elsewhere has changed shape, perhaps, but not nature, not for a long while. Head of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University Jesse Ausubel told Ira Flatow on Science Friday 10 years ago why, generally, plantations were happening; the words he used were control and turnover. Control of inventory; rapid turnover of the crop, for high yield. Ausubel said a decision about how to manage land "is really between a kind of skinhead Earth, in which as the population goes we go everywhere and cut extensively, or that we try to reduce our footprint on the land and, by concentrating and doing things wisely in small areas, whether it's the manufacturing of automobiles or the growing of wood or hemp, that we allow nature to thrive in a very large area in which we don't intervene."

So, those are some of the resources we're harvesting. As for who's doing it: more on the available evidence next, and how it connects to us in southern California. 


(Palm Oil Kernels by Rainforest Action Network via Flickr. Orville by me.)