Friday 13th April, 2007 (IANS)
Sulur is 50 years old, delicately built, but strong as a bear. With high swings, the Indonesian slams his axe into the stem of an oil-palm fruit bunch two, three, four times. Then the bunch of black-orange, berry-like fruits falls to the ground.
He picks up the 10-kg bundle and carries it about 50 metres to a nearby road.
Sulur wipes sweat off his forehead before examining the next oil palm, number 88 of the day. His daily quota is to harvest 100 palms, but on some days, he manages to harvest 120 trees, which brings extra income.
As the palm-oil business booms and the oil mills in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo, are operating at full steam, deliveries that exceed the quota are always welcome.
Palm oil has long been used in a wide range of consumer products, from margarine to sweets and soaps to cosmetics. But since Europe and America have discovered palm oil as a 'biofuel', a cleaner-burning alternative to 'dirty' mineral oil, business has taken off even more - with disastrous consequences for the environment.
Palm-oil consumption has more than doubled to more than 30 million tonnes each year in the past decade. But the environmentally conscious people around the globe who have driven the demand 'haven't realized that they're destroying Indonesia's nature in the process,' said Iwan Wibisono of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Indonesia's rainforest, already exploited and decimated for decades for its valuable hardwoods, is now slashed to make way for new oil-palm plantations.
By 2008, Indonesia's government intends to expand the plantations over 8.4 million hectares, an area the size of Austria, from the 5.4 million hectares planted in 2004. Most of the new plantations are to be set up in Kalimantan.
Because of this expansion drive, the World Bank cautioned that Kalimantan's lowland rainforest might disappear within the next three or four years.
Indonesia, which together with Malaysia is responsible for 80 percent of global palm-oil production, harbours high hopes for healthy profits in the years to come.
No other oil-yielding plant is as fruitful as the oil palm. Four to eight tonnes of oil per hectare make plantations into gold mines. But environmental experts warned that while palm oil brings a high price, it also exacts a high price.
'On Sumatra, most of the rainforest has already disappeared and has been replaced by oil-palm plantations,' said WWF palm-oil expert Purwo Susanto, who grew up on a Sumatra plantation where his father worked.
Environmental scientists like German Florian Siegert have also established that the slash-and-burn method commonly used to clear forest causes more carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere than can be saved by burning biofuels like palm oil.
The clearing also poses a danger to forest residents, including the endangered orangutan.
Lone Nielsen, who runs a rescue station for the primates near Palangkaraya in southern Kalimantan, called oil-palm plantations the gravest threat to the orangutans' survival.
'Their habitat is continually shrinking, so they invade plantations in sheer desperation,' the Dane said.
The foraging orangutans are seen as pests on the plantations and are often killed, but plantation operators in Nielsen's area have started to call in the station's rescuers instead. It receives five to six orangutans a month and prepares them for return to the wild.
The plantation in Katingan district where Sulur works is operated by the Bisma Dharma Kencana industrial and agricultural conglomerate. Currently, less than half its 14,425 hectares is planted in oil palms, but manager Ramadan Pane is expanding the cultivated area.
'Each tree yields one fruit bunch per week throughout the year,' Pane said.
The plantation's total harvest last year was 38,000 tonnes of fruit, which were made into 8,700 tonnes of palm oil.
The oil is shipped to the port city of Surabaya, where it is bought by merchants and exported worldwide. A substantial amount might end up in the European Union, which intends to raise its proportion of biofuel from a current 1 percent of all fuels to 10 percent by 2020.
'Palm-oil exports are good business, so we are not categorically against it,' the WWF's Wibisono said, adding, however, that the industry could be made more environmentally friendly.
'There are already extremely vast plantation areas in Indonesia, yet they only yield half as much per hectare as those in Malaysia, where better-quality seedlings, fertilizers and plantation management have led to increased productivity,' he said. 'These are areas where Indonesia should invest.'
His organization is urging the establishment of new plantations only in areas where rainforest have already been cleared.
'But financially strong investors seem to prefer virgin rainforest because they can make an additional profit from selling the logged wood,' Wibisono said.
For the past three years, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil has worked to establish guidelines for production methods that won't harm the environment. It brings together plantation owners, merchants, consumer-product manufacturers, banks and environmental protection organizations.
One of the forum's goals is to implement the use of a quality seal so consumers would know if the palm oil in their soap or chocolate originated from sustainable plantations.
Germany's federal government already has pipelined a new law, due to come into effect in 2009, that all palm-oil imports must be proved to have been derived from sustainable plantations.
The Bisma plantation is already fulfilling some of the criteria, its manager said. According to Pane, no trees were felled to establish the plantation and it is working with the government to permit 500 farmers to grow their own oil palms on denuded land around the plantation. The mill would guarantee to take their fruit, and they could make about 125 dollars a month, instead of barely 75 dollars as plantation workers.
Sulur, who has been working on the plantation for two years, makes about 100 dollars, but only because he often exceeds his daily harvesting quota.
His work is hard. Barely a breeze blows in the endless rows of oil palms as he works covered in sweat six days a week. He has four children with his wife, who also works on the plantation as a weeder.
'My oldest studies physics,' he said. 'We want him to become a teacher. I want to spare all my children from having to work on the plantation.'