Biofuel on the News

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Biofuel To power Indonesia's anti-poverty drive

by Mike Patterson Sat Feb 17, 6:00 PM ET
Yahoo News

JAKARTA (AFP) - Indonesia is embarking on an ambitious biofuel programme which has already attracted more than 17 billion dollars in foreign and domestic investment and criticism from conservationists worried about the country's forests.

While Indonesia is rich in oil and gas supplies,
demand in Southeast Asia's biggest economy is
outpacing production and it is seeking alternative energy sources to secure its future.

The government has set a target that 17 percent of the country's energy requirements
must be met from renewable sources by 2025 and last year established a National Team for Biofuel Development to develop alternative energy supplies.

For team chief executive Al Hilal Hamdi, crops such as palm oil, cassava, jatropha and
sugar cane could hold the answer not only to Indonesia's concerns about energy security, but also unemployment, poverty, the environment and local unrest.

Last month foreign and domestic firms signed agreements totalling 12.4 billion dollars to develop biofuel projects to turn crops such as palm oil and sugar cane into biodiesel and bioethanol. Chinese state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. inked the single biggest deal -- worth 5.5 billion dollars -- with PT SMART, a subsidiary of Indonesia's Sinar Mas Group, and Hong Kong Energy (Holdings) Ltd. The other investors also included Malaysia's Genting Bhd., Japanese firms Mitsubishi and Mitsui, Brazil's Petrobras and companies from South Korea and Singapore. "Foreign investment is 12.4 billion US and the domestic investment is about five billion US -- half of that is for the farmers through the Indonesian banks," Hamdi told AFP in an

Over the next eight years, some five million to six million hectares (12.5 million to 15 million acres) will be planted with biofuel crops, he said. But just where all this land -- an area far larger than Denmark and a bit smaller than Sri Lanka or the US state of West Virginia -- is going to come from is what worries conservation groups concerned about deforestation.

And according to a surprising study by Netherlands-based Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, biofuel is often more polluting than fossil fuels. Drainage of vast peatland areas for oil palm plantations leads to huge emissions of carbon dioxide as drained peat decomposes very rapidly, the study released in December found. The decomposing peatland can release 70 to 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare per year and result in emissions 10 times higher than if coal was used instead of biofuel, the study found.

Biofuels often more polluting than fossil fuels

"Production of palm oil in Southeast Asian plantations degrades huge peatland areas. The
large amounts of carbon dioxide being emitted due to this degradation makes the use of
palm oil many times more polluting than burning oil or coal," Wetlands said.

Hamdi, who attended the UN conference on climate change in November, said: "We in
Indonesia have already taken some action to improve or to recover the degradation of the
peat land."

While energy security and safeguarding the environment are concerns, he said eradicating poverty and tackling massive unemployment were the main focus of the biofuel programme. About 40 million Indonesians live below the national poverty line of 1.55 dollars a day.

"Actually our concern for the biofuel development programme, number one is to reduce
poverty, to create more jobs for the people," the former manpower minister said. "We would like to cut our unemployment rate from 10.2 percent last year to six percent in 2009-2010. About four million jobs need to be created for the people," he said, but tens of millions more are underemployed.

While it sounds ambitious, Hamdi says his goal is achievable.
"Four million jobs is equivalent to five to six million hectares of oil palm, jatropa and cassava and the income for the people is above the minimum wage," he said. At current crude palm oil prices, two hectares of oil palm would give the owner four million rupiah (about 440 dollars) a month while one hectare of sugar cane for bioethanol could yield an annual net income of 12 million to 14 million rupiah. "It's a good income for the people in the villages where the minimum (monthly) wage is only 75 dollars," he said.

The introduction of new crop varieties and better cultivation methods with the help of state enterprises would also increase the productivity of small farmers, which was often less than half that of commercial plantations.

"Malaysia has a good experience with that model. They can improve the yield," he said.
And while prices for oil and biofuel fluctuate, Hamdi said Indonesia was studying the flexible approach taken by Brazil, one of the world's leading producers of bioethanol. "We are learning from Brazil. When the international price of bioethanol is above that of gasoline, they give the commodity for export and import more gasoline. It's an excellent model that we are going to copy in Indonesia," Hamdi said.

While expressing general approval of biofuel, environmental groups fear that Indonesia's
massive expansion programme will come at the expense of its forests. But Hamdi said there was already more than enough land available due to rogue companies that had obtained plantation licences but then just logged the timber.

Abandoned, logged land ripe could benefit from biofuel crops

Satellite data for Central and Eastern Kalimantan on Borneo island revealed about 4.5 million hectares of unproductive or degraded land which had been logged and abandoned, he said. Hamdi said this land could be improved by growing biofuel crops and provide people with jobs in an area where there were few employment opportunities.

"To reduce poverty is our concern. Otherwise they participate in illegal logging because there is no alternative for the people there," he said. "We cannot open industry, electronics or textiles in that area. It's difficult with the lack of skills (and) education, so agriculture is more familiar to them because they've been doing it for more than a century," he said.

Tackling unemployment in poor and sometimes restive areas could also have a peace
dividend. "The social conflict mainly comes from the people who don't have access to (opportunities) to improve their lives and then some provocateurs come," he said. "If they have a job and they're busy with their plantation, they don't have time to bother or disturb their neighbour. It's more peaceful."

Local biofuel power schemes combined with solar or wind energy could also enable
thousands of villages and islands which are inaccessible to power transmission lines to become energy self-sufficient. About a third of Indonesians have no access to electricity.

"They have had good results in the southern Philippines empowering the community, reducing the government subsidies for the electricity and we'd like to have this programme work with us in Indonesia," said Hamdi.

While Indonesia has targets for renewable energy, Hamdi stresses that is not the main
concern, explaining that 10 percent of the country's energy needs could be met at present just by substituting biodiesel and reducing palm oil exports.

"It's not just a matter of energy, but also poverty alleviation, creating more jobs, increasing purchasing power, improving the environment by utilising unproductive land, by utilising more green energy and of course to secure renewable energy for our Indonesian future," he said.

Originally posted on Yahoo News (


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