Biofuel on the News

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Indonesia's Push for Biofuels

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Kalimantan
February 1, 2007

Life is a lot sweeter for Mangat Nuan these days.

"This used to be my land," he said, waving an arm at the rows of oil palms. "But I rented it to a plantation company a little while ago. It was a good price - all the landowners round here did the same."

Mangat's plot in central Kalimantan now forms part of a new oil palm plantation, which covers 15,000 hectares of land, some of it former forest, according to a local NGO.

The arrival of the plantation may have changed the landscape, but Mangat says it has also changed the lives of the people who live here.

"Life before was difficult," he said. "I couldn't even feed my family, not to mention send my kids to school.

"After the plantation took over, more people came and suddenly we had roads and schools. We've also opened a small shop, so it's improved our income significantly."

If the Indonesian government has its way, another 5m hectares (12m acres) of land in Kalimantan and elsewhere will be turned over to companies growing biofuel crops like oil palm, cassava or sugar cane.

Global demand for alternative fuels is growing, and Alhilal Hamdi, head of Indonesia's new Biofuels Development Board, says now is the time for his country to tap into it.

He said the plan will create between three and four million jobs, and will attract investment to the country.

That investment has already begun to increase. Since the beginning of the year, dozens of new deals to develop biofuels plantations have been agreed, including one involving the Chinese state-owned off-shore oil corporation, estimated to be worth $5.5bn.

Protecting the forests

But sitting on the little bench in front of Mangat's shop is someone who sees all this very differently.

Pak Noordin works with the local pressure group Oil Palm Watch. To date, he says that around a third of palm oil concessions have been built on previously forested land.

"The threat to the forests today comes from palm oil," he said, "because in clearing the land, they have to cut everything, they leave nothing behind and that completely destroys the biodiversity. It's different with logging concessions - they leave a bit behind."

To try and quell critics like Noordin, the Biofuels Development Board says it is pushing new plantations to use so-called unproductive land - land which has been logged and left unused. That means companies will not be able to make extra money from selling the timber they cut down. According to Teguh Patriana, head of Indonesia's Palm Oil Industry Association, the focus on the forests is misplaced anyway.

Plantation companies use only the land assigned to them by the government, he said, and any rainforest there is newly-grown - rather than original - forest.

Lack of clarity

Environmentalists like Noordin remain unconvinced. Indonesia's decentralised authority means that local district heads have been able to side-step the regulations in the past, he says.

The head of the local environment agency, Moses Nikodemus, believes official resolve has hardened, but that unproductive land is less popular with companies - not only because of the lack of timber, but also because they fear getting embroiled in complicated ownership tussles.

The task of protecting Indonesia's forests is made even harder by a lack of clarity - such as where forest land is mixed with agricultural land, or where forest has grown back after logging.

Hard data is sometimes difficult to come by - even at the provincial forestry department.

The department's head admitted that while he knew how much land has been set aside for oil palms and other crops, he did not know how much forest that land contained.

Back at his shop overlooking the young oil palms, Mangat spends his time smoking Indonesia's trademark clove cigarettes and passing round plates of lychees to anyone who will have them.

The new push for biofuels in Indonesia may have made him richer, and it may even help reduce carbon emissions by providing the world with a cleaner kind of energy.

But unless Indonesia makes an effort to enforce the rules, it could find itself polishing up one green image at the expense of another.

Originally posted on BBC News (


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