Oil Palm and Rivers Don’t Mix

PONTIANAK, WEST KALIMANTAN, Indonesia — The economy of the world’s largest Muslim nation, a student here tells me, is financed by three big businesses:  the cigarette, mining, and oil-palm industries. Among these three, Indonesia can claim to be the world’s biggest player in the oil-palm sector. It is in fact the largest producer of oil palm worldwide, ensuring that the sector generates millions of dollars in revenue for the country, as well as jobs for over 3.5 million Indonesians. The other side of this golden coin, however, reveals a heavy toll on Indonesia’s environment, including its forests and rivers, as well as on its people, who have become involved either willingly in the industry or were forced to be part of it.

[See sidebar story: So far yet so near]

Atlases show Indonesia as a string of 17,000 big and small islands that make up a total land mass of 2,027,087 square kilometers and which line up parallel to the Equator. Add to that lush tropical forests and immense biodiversity, and it is now wonder that Indonesia is often called the ‘Emerald Belt of the Equator’. It also has many big rivers and tributaries, and abundant rainfall. Simply put, Indonesia has all the attributes that make it perfect for the oil-palm industry, which requires massive amounts of space to make the venture worth the investment, and in which each tree needs eight litres of water a day to get by.

View of the Kapuas River, on the way to Pinang Dalam Village and Kampung Baru Village, West Kalimantan province, Indonesia.
View of the Kapuas River, on the way to Pinang Dalam Village and Kampung Baru Village, West Kalimantan province, Indonesia.
Near Kuala Karang village, the area around the mouth of Kapuas river is being logged to clear the way for a palm plantation.
Near Kuala Karang village, the area around the mouth of Kapuas river is being logged to clear the way for a palm plantation.
The canal - in Pinang Dalam village, Kubu Raya district, West Kalimantan  - rapidly becomes shallow because of sediment build up from the soil washed out from the palm plantation. This photo shows the water level,  which now remains the same whether in high or low tide.
The canal - in Pinang Dalam village, Kubu Raya district, West Kalimantan - rapidly becomes shallow because of sediment build up from the soil washed out from the palm plantation. This photo shows the water level, which now remains the same whether in high or low tide.
Uurlaila Nurlaila, who lives in Pinang Dalam village.
Uurlaila Nurlaila, who lives in Pinang Dalam village.
Hefni is a headman of Kampung Baru village.
Hefni is a headman of Kampung Baru village.
The palm tree nursery of the PT. MAR plantation company, located next to Kampung Baru Village
The palm tree nursery of the PT. MAR plantation company, located next to Kampung Baru Village
The office of PT.MAR is located inside the palm plantation, next to Kampung Baru village.
The office of PT.MAR is located inside the palm plantation, next to Kampung Baru village.
A part of the PT.Mar plantation which covers 18,000-hectare plot of lands, near Kampung Baru village.
A part of the PT.Mar plantation which covers 18,000-hectare plot of lands, near Kampung Baru village.
Syarif Bujang Asegat, 66 and a former headman of Kampung Baru village, is a member of the group protesting against PT.Mar.
Syarif Bujang Asegat, 66 and a former headman of Kampung Baru village, is a member of the group protesting against PT.Mar.
Kapuas river at dusk, on the way to Pinang Dalam village and Kampung Baru village.
Kapuas river at dusk, on the way to Pinang Dalam village and Kampung Baru village.
Kuala Karang is a fishing village near the mouth of the Kapuas river.
Kuala Karang is a fishing village near the mouth of the Kapuas river.
Zainun, a protest leader from Kuala Karang village.
Zainun, a protest leader from Kuala Karang village.
A map is the PT. Mar plantation areas in Kubu Raya District. Nearby are palm plantation areas of other companies.
A map is the PT. Mar plantation areas in Kubu Raya District. Nearby are palm plantation areas of other companies.

Not surprisingly, the industry is no newcomer to Indonesia. Trade in oil palm began here in 1911 on the eastern coast of Sumatra. By the end of General Soeharto’s dictatorship in 1998, it was estimated that Indonesia had 2.5 million hectares occupied by oil-palm plantations. Even then, it was already a mighty sector dominated by corporations like Astra, Salim, Sinar Mas, and Raja Garuda that today altogether hold two-third of the industry’s total assets.

To continue to reign supreme as the world’s premier oil-palm producer and to meet endless global appetite for renewable energy, Indonesia in 2009 announced that by 2020, the country would be producing 50 million tonnes of raw palm oil – a target representing an increase of over 400 percent from the 11.8 million tonnes the nation churned out in 2007.  A 2011 report by the Netherlands-based think tank Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI) estimates that up to 30 percent of Indonesia’s palm plantation sites are located in Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. According to Indonesia’s regional economic development plan, the concession area allotted to oil-palm plantations will be increased to more than five million hectares within this decade in West Kalimantan alone.

Going green is in

Interestingly, oil-producing Indonesia does not exactly hold the track record as a strong advocate for renewable and alternative energy. But that has not stopped the country from spotting new trends and opportunities.  In 2006, the Indonesian government made biomass fuel a part of its national development policy, and legislated it on the basis that biofuel provides for national energy security, generating jobs in rural areas and strengthening the agriculture sector, as well as providing new export opportunities. It even set as a domestic target biofuel to account for 10 percent of  transport sector’s energy supply. By 2010, the biofuel sector was to generate thousands of new jobs and enable rural communities be self-sufficient in energy. But in the view of Jeffri Saragih, campaigns and education head of Sawit Watch, a nongovernment organisation monitoring the impact of palm monoculture (sawit in Bahasa Indonesia means palm tree), all these are just attempts of the government to portray itself as ‘green’.

The Indonesian government is not alone in promoting extensive oil-palm cultivation, though. As the world grappled with climate change and pressure from rising oil price during 2007-2008, governments and policy makers across the globe were hard pressed to find a way out of these double binds. Oil palm has emerged part of the answer.

The European Union has been a crucial player in driving up global demand for oil palm significantly. In 2009, EU’s Renewable Energy Directive set an overall target that by 2020, 20 percent of energy source in EU must be supplied by renewable sources such as biomass, water, wind, and solar energy. It also required all EU members to ensure that at least 10 percent of their transport sector’s energy demand must be met by renewable sources.

But whether biofuel is the correct answer or not remains debatable in the absence of empirical evidence. A 2010 analysis by research scientist Mark A. Delucchi of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, says that this issue is too complex to arrive at any definite conclusion. The best possible effort to date provides an overall assessment. As it turns out, plant-based biofuel might not help mitigate impact of climate change after all. Worse still, it could bring about a whole host of problems involving water management, water quality, and land-use pattern, in a scale far larger than that with fossil-fuel use. All this is because producing one unit of biofuel requires more land and water than fossil fuel.

To Thai energy giant PTT Public Company Limited, though, biofuel is the way to conquer the future. In September 2007, PTT set up PTT Green Energy (PTT.GE), registering it in Singapore as an overseas investment vehicle to develop an oil-palm business and other related products in Asia. PTT GE’s registered capital is $28 million, or about 942.5 million baht. That same year, PTT GE bought 95 percent of shares in PT Mitra Aneka Rezeki or PT MAR, which has an oil-palm plantation here in Pontianak, West Kalimantan.  The price tag for that huge chunk of shares: 490 million baht or $14.725 million.

A future lit by palm oil

In an interview in Bangkok in June 2012, Pasakorn Srisatra, PTT’s business strategy and budget manager, said that PTT’s objective is to strengthen Thailand’s energy security. Finding alternatives to fossil fuel is a priority if the company is to go forward, he said, and oil palm is the right answer.

“PTT views this business as crucial for the future,” he said. “If we do not start today it would be too late, because plantation takes time. Once we secure the raw materials there are many other processes involved. If we don’t have the experience, we’ll miss the boat. We started in order to acquire experience and to prepare ourselves.”

Pasakorn also said that PTT chose Indonesia and PT. MAR since in recent years Indonesia had emerged the world’s number one oil-palm producer, thanks to its production capacity, large supply of land, proper climate, and the government’s support. Production cost in Indonesia is therefore projected to be not so high.

He added, “The choice of PT MAR — first of all we wanted a partner with experience. When PTT negotiated the partnership, we found PT MAR to have the capacity to mentor us initially. Then we can proceed on our own afterward. We regard PT MAR as an entity with experience and expertise on the ground.”

According to Pasakorn, PTT Green holds pieces of land with good potential in Indonesia and it is expecting to receive concessions covering a total 160,000 hectares. Out of this total, 22,000 hectares are existing palm plantations while another 14,000 hectares are located in Pontianak under the supervision of PT MAR, he said.  PTT Green also has another oil-palm site in Sumatra, said Pasakorn.

Data gathered by WALHI or Friends of Earth Indonesia indicate that PT MAR’s plantations are located on the right bank of Kapuas River in Kubu Raya district directly south of Pontianak. The site covers 18,199 hectares stretching 60 kms that are parallel to the river. There are six villages within this area.

Indonesian laws actually allow each company to plant only a maximum of 20,000 hectares of oil palm. Many companies including Sinar Mas Group, which is the leading player in the industry, get around this ceiling by setting up subsidiaries to apply for more concession to plant oil palm.

Compared with Sinar Mas Group, PT MAR is a relative lightweight. But as a Thai journalist, I was aware that its biggest stockholder is the subsidiary of a corporation that has, just like oil palm, a dubious reputation among activists. Politically influential, PTT is perceived to be able to get away with not-so-proper activities in Thailand. Now it was operating in another Southeast Asian state, and in a rather controversial industry at that. I was curious to find out how it was behaving overseas, to say the least.

And so I found myself forming a team with an interpreter and Denni from LINK-AR Borneo Circle of Advocacy and Research. Together with two boat captains, we cruised along Kapuas River and headed for Pinang Dalam village, one of the communities adjacent to the PT MAR plantation. Denni, pointing to the right bank of the river,  told us that the line of natural trees and foliage visible from the bank hides tracts of palm trees that stretch as far as eyes could see, and all of them belong to PT MAR.

Into the ‘Heart of Borneo’

Indonesia has 10 percent of the world’s tropical forest. It is home to more than 20,000 plant species or around 10 percent of plant varieties on earth, 12 percent of mammal species and 17 per cent of the world’s bird species. The grandeur and the extent of biodiversity of Indonesia’s forest is such that within 10.18 hectares of forest in Borneo, one can find 700 plant species – equivalent to the total of all living species found in North America.

At the centre of Borneo is a forest land poetically called the ‘heart’ of the island. It is a treasure not only of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, which share it, but also the rest of the world. In the Heart of Borneo, which occupies about 54 million hectares, are 14 out of the island’s 20 main rivers.

Among these is Kapuas River, the lifeline that feeds western Kalimantan and Pontianak and flows into the Java Sea in western Borneo. It is the world’s largest island river and is often referred to as ‘Asia’s Amazon’.  Kapuas River snakes through diverse geography in its 1,143 km journey to the sea. The upper Kapuas basin alone features three types of eco-systems: Mountain Forest, Peat Swamp Forest, and Lowland Forest. This combination is critical to protecting the basin from inundation, soil erosion, as well as stabilising water level.  Commercial palm plantation in this section would certainly disrupt the overall system of Kapuas.

The river’s mid-section features forest land that thrives on sandstone formation and mud. Deforestation in this section would cause extensive soil erosion, causing siltation to build up in the river. This in turn would affect residents and the eco-system further downstream. Unfortunately, the majority of palm plantation sites are located in this particular section of Kapuas.

PT MAR’s plantation, however, is located in the lower Kapuas basin. This area includes lowland forest and swamp forest all the way to the coast, which is densely populated.

WALHI Kalimantan Barat campaigner Sumantri said the volume of water in upper and lower Kapuas basins has decreased, and most visibly so during the dry season. He said that in addition to deforestation, this was because corporations draw water from Kapuas River or its tributaries to feed their plantations by way of artificial canals. It seems the plantations use a lot of water;  intensive use of chemical fertiliser, after all, hardens the soil and at the same time destroys water absorbency. A survey conducted by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of palm plantation in Kapuas Hulu District in upper Kapuas found that virtually all commercial palm tracts have rivers or streams running through them. Sumamtri added that from 2000 onwards, the land occupied by oil-palm plantations has expanded towards the lower section of the river.

Yet aside from decreased water volume, the more palpable consequence of having oil-palm plantations near waterways is that rain washes soil, silt, and other elements – including fertilisers and all sorts of chemicals used in the plantations — straight into the river because there is no more forest to act as a buffer.  This is damaging the ecosystem and living species in the river, and results in the build-up of chemicals in the food chain. On top of it all, it is estimated that each tonne of oil palm produced generates 2.5 tonnes of waste.

Plans and people

In Bangkok, PTT’s Pasakorn had talked about how, before buying land, the company collects soil samples to determine whether or not the site is suitable for oil palm plantation. Satellite images are also used to identify the slope and slant of the area. Site selection is important, as the company would choose to plant where investment cost is low, he said Then it would wait for yield per hectare and quality of the yield. If all elements conform to the criteria, said the PTT executive, then the company would start buying the land.

“After purchasing, we would look into details, set up the water system, and go into the preparation of sites,” Pasakorn. “Sites where we tend to saplings should be close to water because palm trees need enough water to survive. Indonesia has the right kind of geography and sufficient rainfall.”

Such is the complicated planning involved just to get large-scale plantations going.  Yet all that effort has apparently not spared PTT of conflicts and controversies with its subsidiary’s oil-palm plantation in West Kalimantan.

For instance, while land and water seem to be the key natural resources that PT MAR and residents in six villages share, the huge gap between the two sides’ negotiating power makes conflicts inevitable.

In the villages of Pinang Dalam and Kampung Baru, the locals are accusing PT MAR of land-grabbing. In Kampung Baru in particular, the villagers said that they just found out one fine day in 2009 that the land where they were living had become property of PT MAR. Yet, they said, they had not consented to let go of their land.

Denni of LINK-AR commented that land ownership system in Indonesia is vague. Anyone holding and making use of a piece of land for more than five years, for example, is deemed the de facto landowner. There is no title deed to verify villagers’ ownership, he said.

Syarif Bujang Asegat, 62, former Kampung Baru headman, meanwhile said that PT MAR’s Indonesian employees informed their office in Thailand that the villagers had agreed to give 1,000 hectares of land to the company. He said that the PT MAR employees then asked the Thai office to transfer money for the land purchase, even though villagers had not consented to such a deal. The villagers themselves said they received no compensation for their land.  I could not determine, however, whether or not PTT Green has ever been aware of this issue.

No land, no forest, more floods

The villagers were less of one mind regarding their sharing of their main water resource with PT MAR, although many of them said the impact of the plantation on the river had not escaped their notice.

In the villages of Pinang Dalam and Kampong Baru, canals bring water from Kapuas for the residents’ daily consumption. But Jumain, a fisher from Pinang Dalam and headman of Hamlet 10 there, predicted that the canal bringing water to their village would soon dry up.

“Lately we have seen more floods because the forest is gone,” said Jumain, noting that PT MAR started a plantation five years ago in an area that was once the community forest. “Palm trees cannot absorb water. With rainfall, the water would carry along soil deposit so the canal is silting up. Without dredging, the canal would soon be dead.”

The locals used to make their living by farming and fishing. When PT MAR started its business here, a number of the villagers worked for the corporation out of necessity after the land they used to till became its property.

Jumain’s wife works for PT MAR. So does Uurlaila Nurlaila, who weeds from six a.m. to 10 a.m. for a daily wage of 36,000 rupiah ($3.73). She confirmed that the site of PT MAR’s plantation was once forest land, as Jumain had told me. But Uurlaila regards PT MAR as job-giver and source of income for the village, and says that she sees no other impact whatsoever to date.

“It’s better even,” she said. “Since PT Mar came here, villagers enjoy better status. They have jobs and two motorbikes per family. I’ve been fine since working here. I suffer no health problems, no conflict. I don’t know what the problem is.”

Uurlaila said her only tasks at PT MAR involved weeding and tending to palm trees. She doesn’t need to water the trees because water is readily available, she said.

Pasakorn had also told me in Bangkok, “We don’t need to water them at all. Because in the land we own, rainfall provides enough water. You can just imagine the cost of getting water to feed the entire plantation; it would simply bankrupt us. We won’t be able to have a reservoir the size big enough for all the water we need. One basic requirement of land is the soil is capable of absorbing and holding water and the average water level each year is just right.”

But Denni would later comment that said the company dug canals from the river towards the plantation in a grid pattern, with each cell covering an area of one hectare to water the palm trees.

Fish flee Kapuas

I asked Uurlaila whether the corporation uses fertiliser and insecticide. She said yes. But she had no idea how much it uses or the frequency of application. I remembered Pasakorn talking about a standard rule of each palm tree needing about eight kilogrammes of fertiliser per year, depending on the soil condition, which is area-specific. But he had said that although there were pests, pesticides and insecticides would be way too costly given the vast area of the plantation.  According to Pasakorn, the corporation relies on a natural control system; pests are not a major issue, he said.

Looking at the map, one would see that compared to those of other companies, the plantation owned by PT MAR is located closest to Kapuas River.  Yet even if we were to assume that PT MAR does use not only fertilisers, but also pesticides, it might not be fair to hold PT MAR solely accountable for all the chemical residues that had been washed by rain into the river and are now lodged in its bed. But it could not be without responsibility for what has happened to Kapuas since it started business here, either.

“Before the company came, we have enough fish to eat and to sell,” said Jumain. But once the company began its business, we barely fished enough to eat. And now there’s no more fish to sell.”

Jumain believes the fish stock in the river has dwindled markedly because of residues from fertilisers and insecticides. He said that many Pintang Dalam villagers who used to be fishers like him now work for PT MAR.

Residents of nearby Kampung Baru seemed less belligerent towards PT MAR than Jumain. There we found Saudin MZ, who said that putting aside the land-ownership issue, he viewed PT MAR in a positive light, particularly because it helps to improve the livelihood of the locals in general. He also insisted that Kapuas could not be filling up with fertiliser and chemical runoffs because, he reasoned,  the plantations are situated quite a distance from the river. Then again, distance seems to be a matter of subjective perception. The way we measured it, PT MAR’s palm plantations in this zone are located just one kilometre away from the river bank, or a very, very short ride by car.

A river of chemicals?

Kampung Baru village headman Hefni was out on errands when our group arrived there.  While we waited for him, one villager who knew why we were there whispered to us that the headman happened to be a key PT MAR supporter.

That seemed to be confirmed when Hefni later stated that Kampung Baru villagers support PT MAR and that there has been no change since PT MAR came into the area. But when we asked him if the company used fertilisers and pesticides, he said it does. He also said that when rainwater washes towards the waterways, villagers who use water from the canal to bathe suffer from itch and inflammation.

“We concluded that these are results of chemicals (from the plantation), because there is no other source around here could generate such chemicals,” Hefni said.  “Before PT MAR arrived, no one suffered from itches. Those who went to see doctor were told that this is caused by chemicals in the river.”

Ye Kampung Baru villagers continue bathe in the river and and drink from its waters. Despite their being told that Kapuas may now harbour harmful chemicals,  they are not afraid of any ill effects from using its waters, Hefni said. Because the tide in the river is so strong, the villagers believe any chemical residues would be washed away from the section on which they rely on for their daily supply of water, he explained. Then he asked what else they could do when “there is only one river”.  Said Hefni: “We just get by.”

Asked if they had observed other changes in Kapuas River, Hefni replied that it seemed to have more water during rainy season than before. He reckoned the cause is deforestation, hence the unusually larger amount of water.

Afterwards, a villager volunteered to take us on a tour of the PT MAR plantation. As we walked through it, we noted a vast open ground with lots of palm saplings on one side. On the other, excluding PT MAR’s office by the roadside, were endless rows of palm trees.  I’ve been trying to work out in my head just how many trees 18,199 hectares can accommodate, but I’ve gotten nowhere.  Let’s suppose, though, that there are 100,000 trees, each needing eight kgs of fertiliser per year to grow, like Pasakorn said. That would mean using 8,000 tonnes of fertiliser each year (plus countless other chemicals whose specific properties I am not aware of). There is no need to describe what happens to land that has to take in 8,000 tons of fertiliser each year. We all know the consequences of monoculture. The question here is to what extent fertiliser is being washed into Kapuas River.

Syarif on a mission

Syarif, Kampung Baru’s former headman, also talked about itches people often got after bathing in the river. Previously, Syarif had been among PT MAR’s supporters. But after the corporation took possession of his land, along with that of other villagers, he became its staunch opponent. On the day we met him, Syarif had just returned from Jakarta, where he had been on a mission to lodge a complaint with the Land Department headquarters after PT MAR and the local government kept ignoring his plight. Unfortunately, he fell ill out of exhaustion and stress and he ended up spending two nights in the hospital. The whole trip cost him 15 million rupiah ($1,553), and all he had to show for it were a small piece of document verifying PT MAR’s ownership over the disputed land and words of consolation from bureaucrats who urged him to stay calm and patient.

Back in his village, Syarif reeled off what he believe have been the negative effects of PT MAR’s plantation on local communities. “One clear impact is deforestation,” he said. “(Also), no floods in the past, but now we have floods.  Previously, we could go collect stuff in the forest, hunt, and so on,  but not anymore. Our income has shrunk. Two community forests measuring 1,500 and 2,000 hectares respectively have been taken over by PT MAR.”

He also said, “In the past, the company used to look after medical expenses of sick employees. But not anymore. I think villagers elsewhere suffer the same situation.”

According to Marihot Tambunan, an official working with PTPN XIII, a state enterprise set up to grow commercial oil palms and other plants, PT MAR had indeed been accused of deforestation. But it was never penalised because it supposedly had committed such acts long before regulations were enforced.

Talking to Syarif reminded me of my encounters with elderly people in rural Thailand where villagers suffer from land-grabbing and other conflicts versus corporations or the State. They would often say to me exactly what Syarif said to explain why he had bothered to fight back: “Soon I will be dead. I am doing this for the children.”

With a tinge of guilt, I asked Syarif if he and his fellow villagers are angry at Thais. Syarif replied that he is angry with Indonesian nationals at PT MAR, but he has no resentment towards the Thai people. He even said that if Thais had been managing the plantation, things might have been better.

PTT wants no problems

“We recognise that this business is being implemented on the ground,” Pasakorn had said in Bangkok when I asked about any policy change in PT MAR after PTT Green had bought into it. “So we need cooperation from the local people. When you do business in large plots of land close to the villagers, we naturally have to take care of them, too. Because we need labour supply from the vicinity, we believe that people who can help take care of us must be the locals who know the local conditions well. And we will look after each other as we grow our business.”

Pasakorn was adamant that PTT has no policy to create problems. It has no intention to take advantage of anyone, he also said. PTT wants the villagers on board as the business progresses, he added.

“On this issue, we are clear from the start that we would employ workers locally,” Pasakorn said. “Managing palm plantation for a stretch of 30 years is a long-term commitment and we need cooperation from the local people. That’s why we must be attentive to these matters.”

But since Uurlaila Nurlaila told me that the majority of PT MAR workers are migrants from other islands like Java and Sumatra, Pasakorn may have meant something else by ‘local’.

The PTT executive had also that PTT Green applies the ‘zero waste management’ approach or leaving no waste behind in its plantation and operations. This includes treating wastewater from the extraction of raw palm oil so that it could be recycled as fertiliser for the plantation. Stressed Pasakorn: “Our idea is that we must not pollute the environment.”

I asked whether the corporation has received any complaint. His reply: “I cannot say there’s none. There have been cases such as road usage. When we transport, we need to pass through lands that belong to the villagers. There have been cases but we try our best to keep (cases) at minimum because at the end of the day, we live together. As for impact on the environment or community, we have not had anything to date.”

In the third quarter of 2011, PTT Green finished building its palm oil-extraction plant in West Kalimantan with a production capacity of 45 tonnes per hour. It has since produced oil totalling 10,000 tonnes. So far, the plant has generated $11.6 million in revenues. In the near future PTT Green plans to set up production for other biofuel and petrochemical products that would sure require massive amount of raw palm fruits to be cost-effective. More than likely, too, it would put more pressure on the environment and local communities, especially if the management of the enterprise is not good enough.

Before visiting West Kalimantan, I had contacted PTT Green to request an interview with a Thai executive in Indonesia. My request was turned down; PTT Green said its executives were too busy. I saw PT MAR’s office in Kampung Baru, but it was already late afternoon and there was no one around. After talking to villagers, I sent another email to PTT Green, with the view of getting some reactions or comments to what I had been told in West Kalimantan. Again, my request for an interview was rejected.

Looking for remedies

It may well be that the villagers and PTT Green are both telling the truth; the problem could lie in PT MAR and its staff in the field.  Yet even if that were so, PTT cannot plead total innocence simply by citing ignorance or the distance factor.

At the same time, it is clear that PT MAR cannot be solely responsible for what has been happening to Kapuas River and the communities that depend on it. Not only are other mega-plantations present in the area – many of which preceded PT MAR here –Kapuas River also suffers the consequences of intensive oil-palm plantation in millions of hectares in its upper part and mid-stream. Still, PT MAR may have to face questions regarding its role in the flooding and siltation that have clogged up canals, as well as the chemical residues in the waterways. Plus the issue of land-grabbing, of course.

Indonesia and Thailand actually resemble each other in their economic growth-driven paradigm of development as the main force that practically dictates policy. Both countries also suffer from corruption and the collusion of powerful business and politicians to weaken institutions, as well as from rampant human-rights violations.

In Thailand, however, democratisation has been erratic at best, compared with what seems to be steady progress towards democratisation in post-Soeharto Indonesia. Yet while I know that the civil-society sector and NGOs are strong and vocal enough to stand up against the State and businesses in Thailand, I have no idea if the same is true in Indonesia.

During my visit to Indonesia, I had asked WALHI’s Sumantri about remedy and reparation for the damage wrought by the PT MAR plantation. He had three practical proposals that he said would produce faster and more effective results than seeking legislative change. At the very least, they may mitigate the contamination of Kapuas River.

First, Sumantri said, the plantation must reduce the use of chemicals; if possible, it should use organic fertiliser. Second, it should stop using paraquat, a weed killer that is toxic to both human and the environment. And third, the government must be serious about regulating the industry.

It may not be easy to implement these three measures, and my pessimism stems partly from what has happened to previous attempts to put the oil-palm industry in order. In August 2003, for instance, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was convened in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia and later evolved into a forum supported by WWF and European business to ensure sustainability in the sector. But the forum has since been criticised as being mere ‘paper tiger’ that defends the sector, given the fact that 40 percent of RSPO members are industry heavyweights such as Sinar Mas Group, as well as multinationals like Unilever (which once chaired RSPO), Procter & Gamble, Nestle, Kraft, Burger King, and Pizza Hut that have considerable interests in it.

Mulling on a river

Amid pressure from climate change, the rising price of fossil fuels, and the ASEAN Economic Community that member-countries target to build by 2015 and which would open up investment opportunities, it will be interesting to see what Indonesia will do next.

As we floated on Kapuas in the still of the night, I thought that perhaps the river’s mighty force would be able to withstand the follies of men and the wrath of nature and manage to survive.  But some of its tributaries and canals are descending towards demise while others are under serious threat, and I cannot tell just how much longer they will last.

That night left me with two other thoughts.

First: Addressing global warming using the old growth-oriented paradigm – that whatever you do, the economy and consumption must grow, and profit must come first – always just worsens the problem instead of solving it.  And it’s almost always the villagers and rural communities who have to endure the harshest of consequences.

Second: The day when Thai people can use cheap biodiesel produced by a big Thai corporation, and when Thailand can boast energy security and help reduce global warming, would we have any clue that the people who make it possible for us but who have to pay the highest price live thousands of kilometres away? They are the people living in six villages on the banks of Kapuas River, the people who we never see and will always be invisible to many of us.


[Kritsada Subpawanthanakun is a reporter for the Bangkok-based Thailand Information Centre for Civil Rights and Investigative Journalism (TCIJ). Kritsada would like to thank Mr Muhammadsafiyan Luebaesa, without whose invaluable help as an interpreter this article would not have been possible.]

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