Clearing Southeast Asian Forests for Energy Crops

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” In Indonesia, for instance, 44 million acres have already been cleared for palm oil development and forest destruction continues unabated as the demand for more land for energy crops increases. Not just forest cover is at risk; endangered wildlife such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger, as well as the lifestyles of indigenous people, are also under threat.” “Equally important is that the government does not put all its eggs in one basket. Efforts (which should include financial support) must be made to explore other alternative energy sources like wind and solar energy.”

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Bangkok Post January 17, 2008 EDITORIAL: Clearing Forests for Energy Crops

<http://www.bangkokpost.com/170108_News/17Jan2008_news99.php> As the surge in global oil prices appears unstoppable, governments and investors alike are scrambling to increase output of energy crops, oil palm in particular, to reduce dependence on fossil fuels or to boost biofuel exports for much-needed foreign exchange. Just as the oil-producing countries are reluctant to increase crude output which would certainly force prices down to a more realistic level, or at least make them more stable, the incentives provided by steadily rising oil prices are simply too tempting to resist for palm oil-producing countries in Southeast Asia, which include Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Otherwise totally dependent on oil imports to meet its energy needs, Thailand recently embarked on an ambitious project to substantially increase palm oil yields, which envisages an extra 2.5 million rai of land being planted with oil palm trees over the next five years. The new plantations will be on disused rice fields, deserted public land, flood-prone land, acid and degraded land in the South and the Eastern Seaboard, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. Increased acreage aside, higher-yield palm trees would also be introduced. The search for alternative energy sources and the environmental threat caused by carbon dioxide emissions is highly commendable and worthy of public support. However, there are environmental risks associated with the expansion of energy crops which need to be addressed in earnest. Finding more empty land for palm cultivation is a big problem. In most cases, forests have fallen victim to encroachers to pave the way for palm plantations. In Indonesia, for instance, 44 million acres have already been cleared for palm oil development and forest destruction continues unabated as the demand for more land for energy crops increases. Not just forest cover is at risk; endangered wildlife such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger, as well as the lifestyles of indigenous people, are also under threat. The scorched earth method employed to clear forests in Indonesia to make way for palm oil plantations has increased emissions in the atmosphere and caused serious concern at the European Council, which is considering a ban on imports of certain biofuels, including palm oil. If this measure actually goes into force, exports of biofuels from Indonesia – and probably Thailand if it produces enough surplus for export – will be affected. Forest clearing by encroachers to pave the way for crop plantations has long been a headache for the Forestry Department. The latest surge in this kind of land grab concerns para rubber, whose prices have skyrocketed in tandem with rising global oil prices. A big question mark in the minds of people concerned with the well-being of our forests is whether the government’s ambitious plan to almost double oil palm plantations over the next five years will indirectly encourage forest encroachment, as cleared forests are more fertile for crop cultivation than acid, flood-prone or degraded land which has been earmarked for new palm plantations by the Ministry of Agriculture. Investment-wise, the cost would be lower, too. The government – and not just the Ministry of Agriculture whose performance in dealing with forest encroachment leaves much to be desired – must make sure that its policy of boosting energy crops, oil palm in particular, must not jeopardise the state of our forests, which are already under threat. Subsidies which are to be granted to the growers must not fall into the wrong hands. Equally important is that the government does not put all its eggs in one basket. Efforts (which should include financial support) must be made to explore other alternative energy sources like wind and solar energy. Also, the government must have a comprehensive plan regarding how much palm oil it will need for energy purposes and how much for consumption, to ensure there are no shortages of cooking oil, which would have a serious impact on consumers.

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