Today (24 February 2015) European politicians will decide whether or not to put millions of tonnes of crops, including palm oil, into car fuel tanks. MEPs on theEuropean Parliament Environment committee are set to vote on whether to put a cap on the use of food crops in biofuels.
Their judgment will have serious repercussions, affecting some of the most vulnerable people and ecosystems in Indonesia.
When I visited Brussels last year to talk with EU decision-makers about Europe’s policy to promote biofuels, my message to them was clear: by using and promoting crops such as palm oil for biofuels, Europe shares responsibility for deforestation and the increase in carbon emissions in Indonesia, not to mention human rights abuses. It’s time for Europe to step up and fix the problem.
The use of palm oil for European biofuels has increased six-fold since 2006. Indonesia is critical in the biofuels debate because it is the largest producer of palm oil and contains some of the most carbon-rich peatlands and forests in the world. It also has the highest rate of tropical deforestation globally – caused largely by the drive for palm oil, including for pumping into European diesel tanks.
This mix has contributed to Indonesia becoming the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the US. A share of these carbon emissions is the responsibility of Europe because of the EU’s biofuels policy.
The Achilles’ heel of biofuels is the insatiable demand for land. I recently learned that Europe’sglobal land-use footprint for biofuels is expected to more than double between 2010 and 2020. Where will this land come from?
Land is a global commodity in high demand, so biofuels policies need to be designed with consideration of the global picture to avoid perverse effects. In Indonesia, for example, the government has already allocated too much land to industrial palm oil production.
Yet Indonesia’s new government just announced plans to triple subsidies for domestic biofuels – a policy that will only encourage more palm oil encroachment into forest and community lands. Demand from both European and domestic palm oil markets is now squeezing Indonesia’s land supply beyond what both environment and people can bear.
Stack of oil palm fresh fruit bunches after harvesting. Photograph: Green Stock Media/Alamy
In my home of West Kalimantan, Borneo, around five million hectares of land – an area larger than Denmark – have been reserved for oil palm plantations. This represents almost one third of our total land in the region. Fifteen per cent of this will be in areas that are currently forested. The rest of the region is almost entirely earmarked by the government for other extractive industries, such as bauxite mining. There will be little, if any, land remaining as forests, for agriculture or for local people to live and farm.
But many local communities are even more concerned by violations of basic human and cultural rights, which so often go hand in hand with large-scale oil palm expansion. The EU has generally turned a blind eye to biofuels’ association with social impacts in producer countries; this flies in the face of international declarations to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and cultural heritage.
In my daily work, I witness the suffering of indigenous and local families who have lost their ancestral lands to oil palm companies without their consent. Sawit Watch, a national NGO, has recorded 731 conflicts over land between communities and oil palm companies – part of a pattern of global land-grabbing. People defending their land have become the victims of violence perpetrated by state security forces in support of companies. Those who protest are injured, criminalised and even imprisoned. Many local farmers are forced to sell or relinquish control of their land, and are impoverished as a result.
Women are particularly disadvantaged by loss of land; many are forced to abandon their traditional livelihoods to become plantation labourers. Women are given the hazardous jobs of spraying chemicals, often without safety equipment. Wages are too low to feed their families. In some cases, women and their children work unpaid to help their husbands meet daily quotas.
Policies to promote biofuels from crops – whether in Indonesia or Europe – are perverse and will continue to boost global carbon emissions and crimes of land deprivation in producer countries such as Indonesia. Today’s vote in the EU Parliament to reform biofuels policy will be a test of political courage to fix the issues.
European parliamentarians should know that the measure of how clean a fuel is also depends on how much blood and anguish has been spent to produce it. By voting yes to halt the use of food crops such as palm oil, Europe could also help reduce the suffering of vulnerable people in countries like mine – and set an example for the Indonesian government and other nations to follow.
The palm oil debate is funded by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled advertisement feature. Find out more here.
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