A trip through Indonesia

United Nations Climate Change Conference, 6 - 14 December 2007

From 6 to 14 December 2007, Josef Göppel travelled to several Indonesian islands to take a first-hand look at rainforest clearance and palm oil plantations. A series of photos is attached to this report.

Palm oil - Curse or blessing?

Travellers flying over the island of Borneo from Singapore will, for some time, see nothing but dark-green forest, covering mountains and plains like a carpet. As the traveller approaches the east coast, however, patches of reddish-brown land, no longer covered by vegetation, increasingly become visible. Then, just a few rows of oil palm plantations, surrounded by a network of drainage canals and paths, come into view.

Indonesia has the dubious honour of being the biggest global emitter of greenhouse gas emissions through deforestation, putting it in third place behind the USA and China in terms of total human-induced climate emissions. Over the past 50 years, 45% of Indonesian natural forest has been destroyed. Yet plantations producing cellulose or palm oil have only been created on only 5% of the forest area. This demonstrates clearly that most firms were only interested in licenses to clear the forest because they wanted to get hold of the wood. In the past, palm oil was mainly produced to be used in the manufacture of margarine. Now, some of it is also being used motor fuel. As a developing country, Indonesia is not obliged by the Kyoto Treaty to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions. That is why the extension of its palm oil industry in carbon-rich landscapes like peat regions and rainforests undoubtedly makes sense in order to generate short-term (!) profits. In ecological terms, however, it is absurd. Twenty per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions currently result from the clearing of rainforests!

Such clearance always follows the same pattern. First, drainage ditches are dug through the primeval forest. Next, the firms take out the valuable trees. The third phase is then to burn the cleared areas. This has a dramatic impact on the fate of the great apes living there. The orang-utans often want to remain on their habitual patches. Yet they cause disruption to the palm plantations. The adults amongst them are therefore frequently shot. The infant apes are extremely sought after and a lively trade in them has sprung up.

The average yield of a plantation of mature oil palms in Indonesia is 3.6 tonnes per hectare per annum - ten times that of soybeans and six times that of rapeseed. Thus, pressure to plant oil palms will intensify. What is important in ecological terms is to ensure that this increase in plantation of oil palms does not swallow up further swathes of untouched forest. Sufficient open grassland for palm oil plantation now exists. Yet, in the absence of financial incentives to conserve the forest, further logging will take place. The returns from illegal selling of wood are too tempting. And oil palm plantations are problematic for other reasons too. Each plant has to be fertilised every year using considerable amounts of chemical fertilise, since the soil in the tropical forests is quickly depleted. The areas below the palms are sprayed with herbicides in order to prevent the fruits getting lost in the grass during harvesting. After 10 to 15 years, the palm bushes collapse and wither. At this point, this area is abandoned and the whole process begins again somewhere else. There is no obligation to re-cultivate the land concerned. Land which has been used once is abandoned.

The plantation industry also creates social problems. People who used to be independent small farmers become itinerant workers for anonymous companies. They receive the statutory minimum wage of $80 US per month for around 180 hours of work.

One of the concrete results of the Bali conference - the "Forest Carbon Partnership" - provides a glimmer of hope. This partnership consists of a fund into which monies from emissions trading between the industrial countries flow. This is used to finance forest-conservation and reforestation projects in developing countries. Indonesia, for example, has offered to protect the whole of its remaining rainforest for a price of $15 per hectare per annum. This would amount to $1.3bn per year. We German members of parliament reacted positively to this proposal. Yet we stressed the fact that money could only be made available providing a clear monitoring system was put in place. The German Toll Collect System, for example, would allow every tree trunk to be tracked from its place of origin to the end customer. In the European agricultural system, payments of premiums to farmers have been monitored in a similar way for many years.

The alternative: a sugar-palm industry run by small farmers

The alternative to the plantation industry can be seen on the island of Sulawesi around the towns of Manado and Tomohon. Here, for centuries, sugar palms have been used to produce palm sugar. Unlike the oil palms, which only grow 5 to 7 metres high, sugar palms are impressive trees which grow in mixed forests and whose deep roots also provide protection against soil erosion. The sugar palm is better than any other type of tree at converting sunlight through photosynthesis. This allows it to produce large amounts of palm syrup in its staminate flower. Traditionally, this has been used to produce food stuffs and beverages. Yet, one hectare of sugar palms in a mixed-forest system can also today produce 19,000 litres of ethanol per year. The energy yield produced by sugar palms is three to four times as high as that produced even by palm oil (400,000 megajoules per hectare compared with 120,000 megajoules per hectare). Additionally, sugar palms provide employment for a large number of people. Eight trees are sufficient for a small farmer to feed a family. This means that this system is particularly suitable for small-farmers' collectives in developing countries. And it is also the reason why big firms are not getting involved. Sugar palms are not suitable for cultivation in plantations. The trees would need too long to reach maturity. The daily tapping of the juice is something which has to be carried out wholly by hand. This means, however, that most of the profits generated stay in the local economy. The farmers remain independent and have a livelihood in their home region. The dignity and satisfaction they demonstrated in their discussion with the German members of parliament is therefore not surprising.

Venturing deep into the rainforest

In the tropical rainforest, the giant trees stretch 60 metres from the ground. Between the trees, a thick layer of foliage filters out all but a few rays of light. Here, surrounded by the rainforest, the air is still and we are sweating profusely. A many-voiced choir of melodic bird voices surrounds us; there is a breathtaking sense of space and diversity of life forms which never fail to fill the visitor with awe. I can barely see five metres to each side of the path due to thick undergrowth. It almost seems impossible, in view of the giant plant forms towering above the ground, to believe that the humus layer here is a mere 5 centimetres thick. Leaves decompose within 48 hours of being shed. Almost all of the total carbon stored is to be found in the vegetation. Once the forest has been cleared, only bare sand and hard, cracked clay remain.

In a German forest, the proportions are very different. Here, stored carbon is divided equally between soil and biomass.

Forests on tropical peatlands are a special case. In Indonesia, there are 22 million hectares of rainforest on peatland (in comparison, Bavaria has a total area of 7 million hectares). On average, the peat is 7 metres thick. One hectare of this forest on peatland stores up to 4000 tonnes of pure carbon. Decent German mixed forest only stores 130 -- 140 tonnes of soil organic carbon. That is why the conservation of these areas is so decisive for climate protection. As soon as drainage ditches are dug, contact with oxygen rapidly causes the carbon to be released into the atmosphere as CO2 .

Does the local population realise this? It would seem not. On the market place of a village in the east of Borneo we saw a monument glorifying stumps of tree trunks. The inhabitants see this as a sign of progress, a symbol for their country's development. Can we really blame them? Many of our villages created in the Middle Ages were built on land from which forest had been cleared. And the same can be said of the conversion of moorland into agricultural land in the 18th Century. At the Climate Conference, a Malaysian member of parliament pointed out to us the fact that our attractive parliamentary building, the Reichstag, stands on land which also used to be covered by forest! What right do we have to deny them the opportunity to do what we did ourselves? Yet the world has become too crowded. By 2050, the global population will have reached the 9-billion mark. So we in the industrial nations must now offer different solutions.

The conference in Bali

When I arrive in the artificially constructed conference town of Nusa Dua on the island of Bali, I am pleased to have had the opportunity to experience the real world on the islands of Borneo and Sulawesi. It is all too easy to lose sight of reality amidst the hum of diplomatic activity. In real terms, the results of the conference are unimpressive. Comprehensive negotiations on long-term cooperation in the area of global climate protection after 2012 are to be started. The results of these negotiations will be fed into a new global climate agreement to be signed in Copenhagen at the end of 2009. For the first time, the Americans accepted limits on their greenhouse gas emissions comparable with the efforts made by other industrial nations. The emerging economies and developing countries, for their part, are for the first time prepared to accept appropriate climate protection measures. Yet they expect reliable support from the industrial nations for this. The only concrete goal achieved was the establishment of the "Forest Carbon Partnership". This fund intended to protect forests will be able to start work immediately. I had been lobbying for months within the German Bundestag for this special initiative.

Overall, my impression was that Germany has won a great deal of trust from the developing countries through its national climate protection programme. The general view I heard in talks on the margins was that those seeking the most reliable proposals for renewable energies and energy-saving technology should talk to the Germans. The trust in Germany and the impact of the example we have set through our actions are huge. This means that we have a particular responsibility. And Chancellor Merkel, by recognising the fact that all people have the same rights with regard to use of the atmosphere, has created the conditions necessary for an international climate agreement which also includes the developing countries.

It was evident that the Bush administration was under massive pressure at domestic level. Several US firms from the energy sector had set up information stands. They are concerned that the Europeans, particularly Germany, could snap up future contracts on global markets.

Overall, I returned to Germany feeling hopeful rather than pessimistic. In the plane on the return journey, I though of the memorial with the felled trees and realised how massive the differences in mentality still are. It will undoubtedly take time before the different opinions can be brought together to create a common position based on the evidence available. The sugar palms on Christian Sulawesi are unlikely to find their way to Muslim Borneo so easily. All of us have certain barriers in our heads. Yet every step we take in our home countries reverberates out across the world. Perhaps UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon was thinking of this when he stressed to young European environmentalists that they should keep pushing, but stay patient!