Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Evils of biofuels

One of the biggest reasons for forest clearance in Southeast Asia is the expansion of oil palm plantations. Oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, has superseded rubber as the major cash crop of this region. Its oily fruit is pressed and processed to make palm oil, which is ubiquitously used in processed food (have a look at your instant noodle packet). The panic over climate change and high oil prices not too long ago led to an interest in biofuels, plant-derived alternatives to traditional petroleum-derived fuels, such as corn-derived ethanol and, that's right, palm oil.

Ironically, or insidiously, the opportunity to make even more profit from using crops for fuel than using crops for food has persuaded many agricultural corporations to convert many of their fields to biofuels production, putting pressure on food systems and increasing the rate of land conversion - because people are still as hungry as they were before biofuels. Therefore, biofuels, far from being the savior of our carbon-emitting economy, is making the problem worse, by giving people incentives to eliminate biodiversity, and actually causing a net carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere, because the cheapest way to clear forest is to burn it.

In Indonesia, clearance of forest is not only impacting the monkeys, trees, and elephants. It is a direct injustice to indigenous peoples who rely on the rainforest for their sustenance. (The opening paragraph of this article does have a slightly misleading vignette: pumpkin and cassava are natively South American crops that were only introduced to Southeast Asia probably in the 16th century, while rubber, a native of Brazil, only arrived in the 19th. But this does not affect the rest of the story, which is set very much in the present day.)

All the ills that characterize business in the tropical frontier are present: corrupt officials both civil and military, legal protection on paper but not in fact, large multinationals more interested in profit than social conscience. Perhaps one may accuse the author of this article as being sentimental in trying to portray the Dayak villagers whom she visits as being a heroic underdog up against the heartless corporations and corrupt officials - is the reality really this black and white? But to those who complain of soppy sentimentality, I say that cynicism easily blinds us to caring about the real human costs of what people usually see as an environmental problem. Forests are not only where the plants and animals live: they are important to people, too, who are just as vulnerable when the forest is gone.

I reflect on this issue because one of the major customers of the company seizing ancestral Dayak lands to clear cut for oil palm is a Singapore-based firm. Doubtless they have their reasons and excuses, but I feel that the problems of oil palm agriculture have been underappreciated in Singapore. I recall being brought on school field trips to Malaysia where we would tour different kinds of farms and plantations, and learn about how oil palm and rubber were produced and processed, how they were made into such a wonderful variety of goods. Silence, however, on what was lost to make that possible. The environmental rhetoric surrounding biofuels has also papered over the true cost of biofuel production - basically trading the tropics for the myopic carbon conscience of consumers in the industrialized nations. Most end-of-the-chain consumers, people like you and me, of course are decent people who would be aghast if their purchasing habits were the direct cause of why the Dayak were being driven forcibly from their homes. But the sheer indirectness of modern supply and production chains absolves anyone of direct responsibility, and makes it easier for unscrupulous acts to be obscured.

A recent letter in Trends in Ecology and Evolution (vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 67-68) by Koh Lian Pin (an associate of the RMBR) and David Wilcove (of Princeton) point out how deliberate misinformation in the media is used by the oil palm industry to justify themselves. For example:

  • Claim: Oil palm is grown on former rubber and other plantations, so little new forest is being cleared.

    • Fact: Untrue. From 1990 to 2005, more than half of oil palm expansion in Malaysia and Indonesia was on old growth and secondary forest.

  • Claim: Oil palm plantations are 'planted forests' that green the landscape and harbor biodiversity too

    • Fact: Quite clearly false. This banks on the urban public's ignorance of what life is like in the forest and plantation. Any casual observer walking through can tell that they are qualitatively different. Oil palm also uses massive quantities of pesticides, that often drain into adjacent forests.

  • Claim: Developed nations have no right to interfere with how the developing world uses its land, because they have been polluters and deforesters in the past

    • Fact: This is like saying that I should have the opportunity to smoke cigarettes and ignore the advice of a sick old smoker, because he's had the chance to smoke and I haven't. This is reminiscent of the simplistic moralizing of the Asian-values debate.

  • Claim: The Malaysian government claims that it will protect places zoned as protected forest and forest reserve from oil palm land conversion.

    • Fact: Unprotected forest will be cleared regardless. Also, Malaysia has bought hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Brazil for oil palm development. It is effectively exporting its problem to other places which care less, something like the NIMBY mentality in the developed world.

I close with a picture of an oil palm plantation, what huge swathes of the region now looks like. The sad thing is that this picture was taken by me just outside of the Pasoh forest reserve in Negri Sembilan. Pasoh is a protected area, because it contains a long-term ecological study plot established by Peter Ashton half a century ago, that is part of a world-wide network of long term forest 'observatories' run by the Center for Tropical Forest Science. Hundreds of scientific publications have been written on this 50 hectares of forest. But contrary to what one might assume when reading these papers, this is not a sample of 'pristine' forest at all. It is surrounded on three sides by oil palm, coming right up to its gates, with very little by way of a buffer zone. If this is the best we have, then forest ecology will soon be a museum science.


andi4 said...

Hi there. I stumbled upon your blog through aimless surfing, but found myself sticking around after reading the first paragraph of your intriguing post. Your environmentalist passion comes across as genuine, and I think it sets you apart from other me-too environmentalist bloggers whose ultimate aim I support, but whose bullying abrasiveness, embarrassing narrow-mindedness and fascist inflexibility invariably turn me off. (I suspect hysterics are necessary to mask sentiments that have less to do with the environment, and more with infantile anti-capitalism.)
I wonder though if you’re making a call for more sustainable palm oil, or if you feel the palm oil industry is inherently unsustainable and should cease operations altogether (this wasn’t made very clear in your post). I myself lean towards the former, and cite sites like and in helping me reach that position.
Would love for you to elaborate on the above. Thanks for letting me comment, and please keep posting!


Brandon said...


Thanks for your comment. Honestly I don't think there's a quick fix. There is a big demand for palm oil, and it isn't easy to find alternatives for it. The industry does create jobs and stimulates economies in developing countries. I'm not sure if it's possible to have 'more sustainable' palm oil - one has to be careful of the smokescreens that farming companies or governments may throw in one's way (see the list in the article). The key problem at the moment is that demand for biofuels from the developed world is making oil palm plantations expand rapidly to meet demand, and competing with the use of oils and agricultural land for food. It is the short-sightedness of biofuels policy that I am criticizing, in the most part. As for oil palm itself, that's another bag of worms to fry (apologize for mixing metaphors).