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Palm oil development threatens Aceh's orangutans

Jakarta Post - June 30, 2009

Jonathan Wootliff – Conservation campaigners in Britain are calling on supermarkets to stop selling products that contain palm oil harvested from environmentally sensitive areas in Indonesia.

Palm oil is widely used in everything from chocolate cookies and potato crisps to detergent and lipstick, and Indonesia is the world's largest producer of this much prized commodity.

The target of this current campaign is the major London Stock Exchange-quoted conglomerate, Jardine Matheson, which is the majority shareholder in an Indonesian palm oil company that plans to convert sections of the Tripa swamp forest in Aceh, Sumatra into palm oil plantations.

Environmentalists claim that the venture will destroy a biologically rich ecosystem that is home to more than 6,000 orangutans.

Although more commonly known as one of Borneo's most endangered species, orangutan populations in Sumatra are dwindling at an even more alarming rate. Experts say that the species found on the island – which is more intelligent and sociable than its Borneo cousin – is well on the way to becoming the first of the great apes to go extinct.

Greenpeace is one of a number of international organizations condemning the Jardine Matheson controlled Astra Agro Lestar palm oil venture, which is headquartered in Jakarta.

It is emotively accusing the company of bankrolling the obliteration of a vital part of Indonesia's rainforests, right in the heart of the region that bore the brunt of the 2004 tsunami which claimed the lives of nearly a quarter of a million people.

Ironically, Jardine's, which is one of the world's oldest companys, was established in Canton in 1832 partly for the purpose of importing opium in to China. Today, it is one of the most respected international businesses in the world, owning a myriad of interests including the prestigious Mandarin Oriental hotel chain.

Its Website states that the company "has always been committed to making a positive contribution to the communities and regions in which it operates."

Astra Agro Lestari (AAL) robustly denies any wrongdoing, claiming its activities are in full compliance with Indonesian law, which requires comprehensive environmental studies that take into consideration any stakeholder concerns prior to the development of any plantations.

AAL says that these studies must cover the potential impact on endangered species, thereby discrediting allegations that its activities have any adverse impact on the orangutan.

The company claims to have set aside thousands of hectares of forest deemed to be of so-called High Conservation Value (HCV), and that the decision to go ahead with the Tripa project was based on the findings of an independent environmental study. In this instance it plans to convert only half of its 13,000-hectare concession as a consequence of conservation concerns.

Less than a quarter of Indonesia's palm oil producers have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the global organization which promotes sustainable practices in the industry. And yet AAL claims to fully endorse the principles of the Roundtable, although curiously, it is not yet a member.

Nothing is simple when it comes to environmental protection in Indonesia, as this Green-Watch column regularly attests. In Sumatra, locals call oil palm the "golden plant", thanks to the income that the fast growing industry delivers.

But conservation groups say the economic benefits come at a high price. In spite of their call for more responsible practices and stronger government action, even the governor of Aceh, known for his green credentials, seems unwilling to intervene.

It may be hard to judge the rights and wrongs of this particular confrontation, but it is clear that conservation groups must fight to protect Sumatra's rapidly depleting natural forests. I have been flying over the island for nearly a decade and have witnessed the clearing of massive areas of forests to make way for palm oil plantations.

The palm oil industry has its rightful place in Indonesia, and responsible development of well managed plantations that do not impact on biodiversity are a necessary if Indonesia's economy is to flourish.

But there is widespread disregard for the needs of the environment with weak enforcement of regulations and laws being all-too-commonplace. It would be far better, therefore, to entrust the palm oil industry to large businesses like AAL, which can be held account for their actions, than to allow an inevitable chaotic free-for-all to take place.

There is a disturbingly large gap between the accusations coming from environmentalists and AAL's counter claims.

It is in the best interests of the orangutan, local people and the company, that this serious dispute be resolved.

There has been a breakdown of trust that must be urgently addressed. It is surely beholden on AAL, and its highly competent parent company, to urgently execute a comprehensive engagement strategy with all of the concerned stakeholders.

[Jonathan Wootliff is an independent sustainable development consultant specializing in the building of productive relationships between companies and NGOs. He can be contacted at jonathan@wootliff.com.]