Shaking Money from
By Ellen Nakashima
toffee coursed through a valley, carrying several types of rare fish. A
young orang utan, a member of a threatened species, dangled merrily by
one leg from a tree.
In the heart of
expanses of intact rain forest, Hermas Rintik Maring, an avid
conservationist who is native to the area, marvelled at the life within
the vast canopies of jungle green that for centuries have made this
tropical island vital to the health of the region.
At the same time, he said, he fears this pristine forest could fall to
the whine of chainsaws and the rumble of bulldozers clearing land for
what has been billed as the world's largest palm oil plantation.
The project, brokered by the Indonesian government in
affect as many as 5 million acres of
smaller than the state of
the island, which is divided between
Indonesian officials claim the plantation could bring the area a half
a million jobs directly related to the industry and 500,000 more in
spin-off jobs in schools, health care and other services. It could
produce m ore than 10 million tons of crude palm oil a year, they said,
worth about $4.6 billion. Chinese officials said a project covering 5
million acres could cost up to $10 billion.
But environmentalists such as Hermas, 28, a field officer for the
Worldwide Fund for Nature in
planning the project could destroy
"It would be one of man's great mistakes," said Hermas, his eyes
sweeping across a panorama of olive forests and blue-grey mountains from
a clearing 1,800 feet high. "It would be unforgivable."
The plan is still in its infancy. It envisions a series of large
plantations owned by private companies and linked by roads and palm oil
mills. Exactly where everything would go has not been decided. That lack
of clarity has prompted growing controversy.
Palm oil, used in the age of the Egyptian pharaohs, is fast becoming
one of the world's leading vegetable oils. The antioxidant-rich oil,
squeezed from a reddish fruit about the size of a large plum, is used in
products as diverse as chocolate, potato chips, detergent and lipstick.
It is now being touted as a bio-fuel -- a clean alternative fuel -- as
crude oil prices soar.
world's number one producer. But if the project here proceeds as the
plantations," said Raden Pardede, a senior adviser to the Economic
Affairs Ministry who is working on the project.
Earlier this year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited East and
Malaysian part of the island. He met with governors and mayors, who
appealed for roads, jobs and resources to combat rampant illegal logging.
Yudhoyono, a retired general and former security minister, has long
wanted to bring investment to the border area. "Security and stability
will be better," he told Tempo, an Indonesian newsmagazine, in an August
interview. "Palm oil and agricultural cultivation will raise incomes,
absorb the workforce and increase regional taxes. Meanwhile, we will be
able to keep on nurturing the sense of nationhood and being Indonesian."
In July, on a state visit to
about helping to develop the border area. "So far, the feedback has been
positive," Yudhoyono said.
Chinese officials are more circumspect. "We are proceeding very
cautiously," a bank official in
on condition of anonymity.
The Chinese said that though their government is generally keen to
infrastructure, agricultural projects such as palm oil plantations
require careful study. Environmental concerns, competing land claims and
conflicting viewpoints of local governments could slow progress, said
Tan Weiwen, economic and commercial counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in
But, he said, he sees opportunity in a growing demand for palm oil in
world at large. "Where there is sugar," he said, "the ants will come."
Indonesian officials said they would conduct an in-depth feasibility
study next year that will weigh environmental, social, economic and
security costs and benefits. "Basically the idea is to increase the
well-being of the people along the border," said Pardede, the adviser.
He said that he expected the project would safeguard wildlife. "We
don't want to build in protected areas," he said.
He has heard the objections of environmentalists, who cited research
showing that oil palms do not thrive above 670 feet. The forests near
the border rise like cathedrals on mountains with elevations of 1,000 to
The area that environmentalists call the heart of
of the island's 16 major rivers. Six miles downstream from Betung
Kerihun is Danau Sentarum, a 325,000-acre necklace of lakes that nurture
several species found only on
arawana fish. Indigenous peoples live and fish on the lakes. Logging the
forests will start a chain reaction of erosion and silt build-up that
will destroy the area's water ecosystem, environmentalists say.
At least one plan, drawn up by a consortium of state-owned palm oil
plantations and obtained by Worldwide Fund for Nature, shows plantations
being built in three national parks near the border, including Betung
Kerihun and Danau Sentarum.
Pardede dismissed that plan as unworkable. But environmentalists are
taking no chances. Many local officials, they noted, are eager to see
jobs coming their way.
The environmentalists are concerned that under the guise of planting
oil palms, companies will raze the forests, removing billions of
dollars' worth of timber, and then abandon the land. Too often over the
last decade in
Forestry Ministry, 5.75 million acres of forest in Indonesian Borneo
alone have been cleared for palm oil plantations that never
materialized. Most of that land is at a lower altitude.
If the government wants to promote oil palm plantations, "Why not use
that land?" asked Hermas, the conservationist.
On a recent day, Hermas motored four hours up the
wooden longboat, past trees wearing fern garlands like feather boas. At
a small clearing, he stepped lithely out of the boat, and he and several
colleagues began to climb. With each step came a new vista. Sunlight
dappled the forest floor, illuminating mushrooms, fern tendrils and
giant ants skittering across twigs.
"This is orang utan habitat," he said, moving up steep slopes and
whacking vines with a machete. He peered up at an abandoned orang utan
nest, some 100 feet high in a tree. A decade ago, an estimated 100,000
orang utans frolicked in
Palm oil plantations are the main reason for the decline, according to
Friends of the Earth, an international environmental group. The industry
could drive the ape to extinction within 12 years, the group warned.
Hermas is one of
grow palm oil, which the Dutch introduced to
1800s. He worried that if plantations are built, workers from other
Hermas was raised in a forest culture and now lives in a communal
Dayak longhouse in a town hours away by boat and motorbike. On a recent
walk, he paused to hear a peacock cooing. He noted dainty white orchids
with lavender tips, a new species discovered several years ago. "The
forest," he said, "is a genetic bank."
His parentsí trapped wild boar, he said. They showed him how to find
edible rattan shoots. With his machete, he hacked a robust liana vine
two inches in diameter, releasing a liquid that was cool and clear, like
pure water. He held the bamboo-like tube to his mouth and took a deep
swallow. "We can survive in the jungle," he said. "We can eat young
leaves. We can get water from the liana. Everything can be eaten here."
This cultural heritage is at risk, he said.
"I, my grandparents, used to be in the jungle," he said. "We used many
sources of the jungle. But if someday the jungle changes to palm oil,
what can we do?"