Thu, 14 Feb 2008
We live in a “Back to the Future” era where most of what powers our daily lives is in essence “Time Travel”. Exploiting the compressed remains from prehistory - the constant rain of plankton onto the ocean floor and the settlement of vegetation in anoxic swamps during the Carboniferous period - we are mining and extracting our distant past for acceleration in our present.

Our future, if we proceed as we do now, depends on the presumption that the past is not expendable.

The common view from the Energy Majors is that that this situation can be extended by opening new oil fields and by using unconventional oil (for example, oil extracted from tar sands). But these may cause environmental disasters of their own. Around half the new discoveries the oil companies expect over the next 25 years will take place in the Arctic or in the very deep sea (between 2000 and 4000 metres).

In either case, a major oil spill, in such slow and fragile ecosystems, would be catastrophic. Mining unconventional oil, such as the tar sands in Canada, produces far more carbon dioxide than drilling for ordinary petroleum. It also uses and pollutes great volumes of freshwater, and wrecks thousands of acres of pristine land.

The idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy and the extraordinary power densities it gives us, with ambient energy is the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no substitute for cutting back.

Alternative energy supplies are always in discussion, the most common option within the world forum is the “Biodiesel Saviour”. Although proven technology, the use of biodiesel in the west will do nothing for South East Asia except make a few wallets very much fatter.

In promoting biodiesel, as the European Union, the British and US governments and thousands of environmental campaigners do, you might imagine that you are creating a market for old chip fat, or rapeseed oil, or oil from algae grown in desert ponds. In reality you are creating a market for the most destructive crop on earth.

Figures obtained last year in the UK by the activist group Road Block show that for the widening of the M1 alone the government will pay £3.6 billion, more than it is spending on its entire climate change programme. Instead of attempting to reduce demand, it is trying to alter supply. It is prepared to sacrifice the South East Asian rainforests in order to be seen to do something, and to allow western motorists to feel better about themselves.

Before oil palms -- which are in relation to the original vegetation, diminutive and bush-like - are planted, the vast canopies, containing a much greater store of carbon, must be felled and burned. With the incentive to plant more, the drier lands are already inundated with these straight lines of oil palm and the plantations are now moving into the swamp forests.

These swamplands grow on peat. When they’ve cut the trees, the planters need to drain the ground. As the peat dries it oxidises, releasing even more carbon dioxide than the trees. In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from anywhere in the world.

Almost all the remaining Indonesian forests are at risk. Even the Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan is being illegally ripped apart by oil planters. Throughout the nation animals are suffering!

The orang-utan is likely to become extinct in the wild, Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis monkeys and thousands of other species could go the same way. Thousands of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and in some cases, it has been rumoured that Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist. The forest fires that every so often smother the region in smog are mostly started by palm growers. The entire region is being turned into a gigantic vegetable oil field.

Plantations are also "biological deserts". Because they are of one species they will by definition exclude the rich and diverse flora and fauna that lived on the site before the plantation was planted.

Plantations thus challenge the laws of nature.

More rationally a large concentration of one species will provide a food source for an insect predator that the same species scattered through a forest would not. This will allow the predator to escalate in numbers to an extent that it will devastate the plantation species and then after the plantation species is consumed, inflict severe collateral damage on any adjacent forest species because of high populations of starving insects.

The only control over the insect population would be of a chemical nature. This may prevent the scenario described above, but, will cause damage as the toxins such as pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, leach into the water system and poison the environment.

Thus, two environmental impacts are taking place one in the short term, before the plantation is established, and the second in the long term, an attrition over many hundreds of years that will leave Indonesia with nothing for the future.

As mentioned above, monocultures are more susceptible to pests and diseases: plantations risk poor health due to environmental stress from soil nutrient decline; climate change and an increase in UVB light; soil nutrients are being lost; forestry machinery causes sedimentation in waterways and subsequent damage to aquatic life; and perhaps, more importantly, many bird species and animal species are absent from plantations, and given the drive for Biodiesel may have nowhere to run, swing, slither or fly to for their future.

Re-thinking our planting, avoiding plantations and creating a new bio-diversity appears to be the only rational action!

If this approach were followed, Asia’s new forests would, besides preventing floods and landslides, soak up carbon dioxide. But they are less diverse than those still disappearing. Some are plantations of eucalyptus for papermaking, or other fast-growing species such as poplar, used for building materials. Others are fruit orchards. Nevertheless, even in plantation forests, if managed in an environmentally sound manner, nature subversively reinvades and populates them with a variety of other species.

In some places - Thailand is one example - there are projects to restore something pretty close to the original, diverse tropical forest. Nature does this by itself if left undisturbed. But conservationists are lending a helping hand by planting fast-growing “pioneer” tree species which provide a high canopy of foliage. This in turn speeds the regeneration of the original moist forest. If this were to take place, not only will Asia-Pacific’s forest area begin to regrow, but after centuries of shrinking there are even grounds for hope that some of its rich diversity can be re-created.

Within Indonesia, as you fly above almost all off Sumatra and Kalimantan today, the tranquillity that you seem to see below is in fact hundreds of thousands of square acres of straight lines comprising oil palm trees to satisfy biodiesel demand. The atmosphere above what used to be pristine rainforest is becoming more like the streets of Jakarta with these clouds of ash also drifting throughout South East Asia and polluting other nations into the bargain.

As with all peoples in the world, Indonesians need to make money, however, after many years of corruption at both major and minor levels, the mechanics of normal business routine and the wheels of commerce have been so badly tarnished that without some form of grease they will seize and nothing will happen at all.

This grease has prevented the formation of any kind of sustainable resource group as the brown envelopes are bigger carrots to businessmen and officials than the threatened snarl from public bodies trying to change both the mind set of the perpetrators and save a huge natural resource at the same time.

Two years ago, on my way to meetings within the heart of Riau Province, the landscape turned almost desert like. Yes there were oil palm trees, laid out like parade soldiers, however, there was an arid quality to the road and forest behind; dust clouds blew, smoke permeated everywhere and the few last arboreal giants stood naked, without leaves, merely waiting, towering above the non native palms to fall to their graves, because in truth they were already dead, and worse, unlikely to ever return.

Late last year, on the same road, I was shocked to discover how bad things actually were, scenes from Mordor in “Lord of the Rings” seemed tame compared to the devastation that continues throughout this area, and presumably, throughout the rest off the country.

If the Indonesians cannot see what is happening, or worse, are not aware that their children will only have memories of these once great jungles, I do indeed shed a tear for them, however, I cannot forgive them as what they are taking from the world is not theirs to take.

The only question worth asking is what we intend to do about it.

There might be a miracle cure. Photosynthetic energy, supercritical geothermal fluid drilling (such as the “hot rocks” project in Australia), cold fusion, hydrocatalytic hydrogen energy and various other hopeful monsters could each provide us with almost unlimited cheap energy. But we shouldn’t count on it. The technical, or even theoretical, barriers might prove insuperable. There are plenty of existing alternatives to oil, but none of them is cheap, and none offers a comparable return on investment to the “Energy Majors”.

Currently, geothermal energy provides Indonesia with its best option, which, if developed and a moratorium placed on new oil developments, would certainly be a move towards a greener and self sustainable future.

Oil production for fuel could be halted; the use of petrol and diesel for vehicles is a costly waste of oil’s true potential. Deplete the oil fields and you lose many off the materials we take for granted in our daily lives, although getting rid of Jakarta’s indigenous black plastic bag population would not be a bad thing. Sensible and ecologically sound exploitation at minimal levels would provide Indonesia with raw materials for many hundreds of years without the current need for “production for propulsion”.

The governments move towards LPG for cooking and transportation would at least allow the existing gas fields, which are sufficiently large to provide power for at least a century, to fuel the archipelago until other sustainable fuels are developed.

Weaning the country from the hydrocarbon tit is urgent, and may I add, not only within Indonesia. Unless we accept this the consequences do not bear thinking about!

When the oil runs out and the plantations run dry….. I’d say it was a better day all around for Indonesia!

Dilligaf, Scottish, stuck in Jakarta, in an industry he loathes, but rather enjoys at the same time, he's better known for his 'other' contributions to Indonesian life on other forums (NSFW?). (But do read his blog Hardship Posting.)

Thu, 14 Feb 2008
From: JakChat
Comment by Roy's hair
Nice one Dill, very good piece. There seems to be a growing weight of opinion inveighing against this bio-fuel red herring. Hopefully technology will give us some solutions in the coming decade or so. Solar, for example; current panels are terribly inefficient but nano tech and Carbon nanotube panels could solve this, if we could capture one percent of one percent of the sunlight falling on the planet we'd have energy for everyone apparently.

Thu, 14 Feb 2008
From: JakChat
Comment by Dilli
I knew about the Nano tube technology (there's a National Geographic with an article on this which I often re-read, basically as it is next to my shitter) I mentioned photasynthetic as that uses this technology.

Missed out Solar though....bugger

Thu, 14 Feb 2008
From: JakChat
Comment by KuKuKaChu
the sooner this oil palm biofuel mania has been killed off, the better. the recent EU ruling regarding biofuels seems to have put a bit of a sock in the "gold rush" for plantation land in Indonesia, but it's probably too late to stop the environmental carnage that will ensure in Kalimantan in particular.

Thu, 14 Feb 2008
From: JakChat
Comment by Roy's hair
This is also an ideological battle as well which Dilli touched on, We've got to to check our spiralling materialism and consumption drive. Capitalist realism, the idea that capitalism is the inevitable terminus awaiting all societies fortunate enough to reach the End of History, relies on a naturalization of current social conditions. Indonesians, and indeed the whole world, are ever increasingly surrounded by symbols of the fantasy life, the bourgeois sophistication we all desire. New technologies make this wrap around CGI consumer/advertising fuelled ideology seem increasingly seamless. A pulsing videodrome signal that drugs our unconcious minds 24/7, addicts us to patterns of consumption and deadens us to any other ideological possibilities lying outside late capitalisms sense-surround matrix.......however we seem to have come full circle back to the Gang Of Four, perhaps they could save the rainforests with their groovy guitars.

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