Tropical Deforestation Threatens Climate, Biodiversity 

By Abrahm Lustgarten. This article is a partnership between ProPublica, where Abrahm Lustgarten is a senior reporter, and The New York Times Magazine. In addition to the contribution to global warming, palm oil production is driving the extinction of the orangutan and Sumatran tiger. Indonesia has already pushed the Bali tiger and the Java tiger into extinction.

The fields outside Kotawaringin village in Central Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, looked as if they had just been cleared by armies. None of the old growth remained — only charred stumps poking up from murky, dark pools of water. In places, smoke still curled from land that days ago had been covered with lush jungle. Villagers had burned it all down, clearing the way for a lucrative crop whose cultivation now dominates the entire island: the oil-palm tree.

The dirt road was ruler straight, but deep holes and errant boulders tossed our tiny Toyota back and forth. Trucks coughed out black smoke, their beds brimming over with seven-ton loads of palm fruit rocking back and forth on tires as tall as people. Clear-cut land soon gave way to a uniform crop of oil-palm groves: orderly trees, a sign that we had crossed into an industrial palm plantation. Oil-palm trees look like the coconut-palm trees you see on postcards from Florida — they grow to more than 60 feet tall and flourish on the peaty wetland soil common in lowland tropics. But they are significantly more valuable. Every two weeks or so, each tree produces a 50-pound bunch of walnut-size fruit, bursting with a red, viscous oil that is more versatile than almost any other plant-based oil of its kind. Indonesia is rich in timber and coal, but palm oil is its biggest export.

Around the world, the oil from palm meat and seeds has long been an indispensable ingredient in everything from soap to ice cream. But it has now become a key ingredient in biodiesel.

deforestation and global warming

Finally we emerged, and as we crested a hill, the plantations fell into an endless repetition of tidy bunches stretching for miles, looking almost like the rag of a Berber carpet. Occasionally, a shard of an old ironwood tree shot into the air, a remnant of the primordial canopy of dense rain forest that dominated the land until very recently.

Our driver, a 44-year-old island native and whistle-blower named Gusti Gelambong, had brought us here to show us the incredible destruction wrought by the growing demand for palm oil. The oldest male among nine siblings, he was modestly built but exuded a wiry strength. His father, he told us, was a king of one of Borneo’s dozens of Dayak tribes, the sixth descendant of the sultan of Old Kotawaringin, and his mother came from a line of warriors who served in the Indonesian special forces. In 2001, he said, he took part in a brutal ethnic cleansing of Indonesians who had moved in from the nearby island of Madura. He macheted his way through the nearby town of Pangkalan Bun, slaughtering dozens of people. He felt no remorse about the violence. But the palm-oil companies, Gelambong said, were much stronger than the Madurese. As we approached an intersection, we could see two plantation guards lying back in a shack, rifles propped against their knees. He sped past the guards, averting his eyes.

Most of the plantations around us were new, their rise a direct consequence of policy decisions made half a world away. In the mid-2000s, Western nations, led by the United States, began drafting environmental laws that encouraged the use of vegetable oil in fuels — an ambitious move to reduce carbon dioxide and curb global warming. But these laws were drawn up based on an incomplete accounting of the true environmental costs. Despite warnings that the policies could have the opposite of their intended effect, they were implemented anyway, producing what now appears to be a calamity with global consequences.

The tropical rainforests of Indonesia, and in particular the peatland regions of Borneo, have large amounts of carbon trapped within their trees and soil. Slashing and burning the existing forests to make way for oil-palm cultivation had a perverse effect: It released more carbon. A lot more carbon. NASA researchers say the accelerated destruction of Borneo’s forests contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, an explosion that transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of such emissions.

Instead of creating a clever technocratic fix to reduce American’s carbon footprint, lawmakers had lit the fuse on a powerful carbon bomb that, as the forests were cleared and burned, produced more carbon than the entire continent of Europe. The unprecedented palm-oil boom, meanwhile, has enriched and emboldened many of the region’s largest corporations, which have begun using their newfound power and wealth to suppress critics, abuse workers and acquire more land to produce oil.

We arrived at another plantation and stopped near where a stream coursed through the bog. People still lived here: A mother bathed two children beneath a culvert, and a shirtless young boy ran through row after row of identical young palms in the distance, surrounded by dragonflies and sparrows. The uniformity of the world he was growing up in was striking, like the endless plains of drilling rigs in an East Texas oil field. It was, in a way, an astounding achievement, the ruthless culmination of mankind’s long effort to extract every last remaining bit of the earth’s seemingly boundless natural wealth. But it was also frightening. This was what an American effort to save the planet looked like. It was startlingly efficient, extremely profitable and utterly disastrous.

The last thing anyone expected from President George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address was a proposal for the largest-ever cut in the nation’s use of gasoline. The president was no climate champion — he had backed out of the Kyoto Protocol shortly after taking office in 2001 — but he did favor what he called “energy independence.” He had declared the United States “addicted” to foreign oil, yet dependence on Middle Eastern fuel continued. Hurricane Katrina, and the lingering damage it did to oil pipelines and refineries, had pushed up gas prices, renewed fears of global warming and kept a firm thumb on the economy.

Now, Bush proposed, homegrown energy could be drawn from the rural places most in need of an economic boost. Clean-coal initiatives would generate the electricity of the future, but it was biofuels — in particular ethanol, which is largely distilled from corn, and biodiesel, made with vegetable oil — that would power the vehicles of the future. Within 10 years, the country would replace 35 billion gallons of petroleum, or one-fifth of all the gas and diesel burned, with fuel made from plants. The measure, as he put it, would confront “the serious challenge of global climate change.” Unsaid, but clear to anyone paying attention, was that it would also please America’s agriculture industry, which had been lobbying for ethanol and advanced biofuel research for years. The House chamber erupted in applause.

On the night of the president’s address, Timothy Searchinger sat on his couch in Takoma Park, Md., just a few miles from the Capitol, and watched on television, struck by what seemed to him a glaring lapse in logic. “Oh, my God, what the hell is happening here?” he recalls wondering aloud.

Searchinger wasn’t a scientist; he was a lawyer, working with the Environmental Defense Fund. But he saw a serious flaw in the claim that the president’s proposal would ameliorate climate change. Searchinger knew that cropland had already consumed virtually every arable acre across the Midwest.

Quintupling biofuel production would require a huge amount of additional arable land, far more than existed in the United States.

Unless Americans planned to eat less, that meant displacing food production to some other country with unused land — and he knew that when forests are cut, or new land is opened for farming, substantial new amounts of carbon can be released into the atmosphere. Forests hold as much as 45 percent of the planet’s carbon stored on land, and old-growth trees in particular hold a great deal of that carbon, typically far more than any of the crops that replace them. When the trees are cut down, most of that carbon is released.

Scientists and lawyers who study environmental impact often deploy “carbon-life-cycle analysis” to determine just how much carbon a given product is removing from, or introducing to, the environment over the course of its production and consumption. When a truck burns biodiesel, the carbon emissions that come from its tailpipe aren’t much different from those of a truck burning petroleum. But a part of the biodiesel emissions aren’t counted, because — in theory — they have been balanced out: Plants absorb carbon from the atmosphere when they grow, and fuel experts subtract that sequestered carbon from the tailpipe emission, completing a transaction that they say balances at zero.

In ideal circumstances — unvegetated land planted for the first time — this balancing out really happens. When corn grows, it soaks up carbon, and when it is consumed (whether as food or fuel), it releases that carbon back into the air. But the analysis breaks down when faced with the reality of land use. Almost everywhere in the world, planting more corn or soy for biofuel would involve creating more farmland, which in turn would involve cutting down whatever was already growing on that land. And that would mean releasing a huge amount of carbon into the air, with nothing to balance the books. As Searchinger watched Bush’s call for an unprecedented increase in biofuel production, his hunch was that the biofuel balance sheet would turn out to be tragically short-sighted.

Representative Henry A. Waxman, at the time a powerful 16-term Democrat from California who had presided over several failed efforts to pass climate legislation, was also skeptical about Bush’s plan. But he knew that one of the most vexing aspects of global emissions reduction was the question of how to replace transportation fuels. It was hard enough to upgrade several thousand electrical power plants to draw on wind or solar or even nuclear power. That would take years. But transforming the more than 100 million cars and trucks on America’s roads would take far longer, decades even, and in the meantime those vehicles were producing 28 percent of carbon emissions in the United States. Waxman thought a biofuel requirement could be a turning point in climate legislation, a moment when Washington stopped pretending.

Within months of Bush’s speech, the House and the Senate were reconciling a draft of a sprawling omnibus bill that would eventually be called the Energy Independence and Security Act, or EISA. In addition to requiring carmakers to improve fuel standards, a longtime priority for Democrats, the bill updated and expanded renewable-fuel standards, requiring fuel producers to mix in soy, palm and other kinds of vegetable oil with diesel fuel and to use ethanol from corn and sugar in gasoline. The bill also set tough standards for how much cleaner, in terms of carbon, each of those categories of fuel had to become — 50 percent for diesel, 20 percent for gas — and empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to judge what qualified.

The expected gains were enormous. The switch to biofuels, the E.P.A. would later calculate, promised to stop the release of 4.5 billion tons of carbon over three decades, the equivalent of parking every single American automobile for more than seven years. Before the bill passed in December 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it “the shot heard round the world for energy independence.”

The law had a profound effect. Biodiesel production in the United States would jump from 250 million gallons in 2006 to more than 1.5 billion gallons in 2016. Imports of biodiesel to the United States surged from near zero to more than 100 million gallons a month. As fuel markets snatched up every ounce of domestic soy oil to meet the American fuel mandate, the food industry also replaced the soy it had used with something cheaper and just as good: palm oil, largely from Malaysia and Indonesia, which are the sources of nearly 90 percent of the global supply. Lawmakers never anticipated that their well-intentioned plan — to help the climate by helping American farmers — might instead transform Indonesia and present one of the greatest threats to the planet’s tropical rain forests. But as Indonesian palm oil began to flood Western markets, that is exactly what began to happen.

“We saw great promise,” Waxman told me recently, sitting in a glass conference room at Waxman Strategies, the Washington lobbying firm of which he is chairman. But he is no longer so hopeful. He is now also the chairman of the environmental organization Mighty Earth, which lobbies food and agriculture companies to deploy more climate-friendly production methods. In 2007, he and other lawmakers were focused on the benefits of biofuels and the bridge they promised to even greener technologies. Now the soft-spoken Waxman is far more concerned about the other side of the equation. “We didn’t think we were going to pay such a heavy price,” he said.

Palm-oil producers had been lobbying American lawmakers to introduce biofuel incentives for years, and they were well prepared for the moment when the incentives became law. Wilmar — the colossal Singaporean conglomerate that controls nearly half of the global palm-oil trade — announced in 2007 that it would quadruple its biodiesel production. In Indonesia, officials directed state-owned and regional banks to make loans on more than $8 billion worth of palm-oil-related development projects and pledged to produce 5.9 billion gallons of biofuel within five years. They also announced that Indonesia would convert more than 13 million acres of additional forest to industrialized palm production. It was as if in response to a law in China, the United States undertook a plan to convert every single acre of New Jersey to soybean crops, and then threw in all of Connecticut and New Hampshire.

To make Indonesia’s plan a reality, a complicated question of land ownership had to be addressed. Much of the new development was focused on Borneo, where many villages were settled before there were nations, let alone land deeds. To create a legal basis for development, the Indonesian government established a commercial land-share system in the 1980s. In theory, the system let villages sign over development rights in return for some part of the profit. But in practice, many villagers said, companies often secured the permits they needed through some combination of intense lobbying, bribery and strong-arming, and the result was broken promises and missing payments.

Read The Full Story About Palm Oil Production and Climate Change

RSPO Background & Update (November 2020):

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an industry body formed in 2004 with a mission to reassure consumers that palm oil bearing its certificate of approval is free from links with primary forest destruction, damage to endangered species’ habitats or abuses of the rights of indigenous peoples and communities. As you can see, just from the following links, complaints and commentary, the RSPO is severely lacking after 16 years of blowing smoke.

Certified ‘sustainable’ palm oil plantations endanger mammal habitats and biodiverse tropical forests over 30 years. https://phys.org/news/2020-07-certified-sustainable-palm-oil-fields.html

2020 Bribery Case https://www.forestpeoples.org/en/palm-oil-rspo/press-release/2020/large-scale-bribery-and-illegal-land-use-violations-alleged-large

Earth.org supports sustainable palm oil in concept. Not there, yet. https://earth.org/how-palm-oil-contributes-to-environmental-destruction/

Redd Monitor https://redd-monitor.org/2019/11/05/greenwash-how-the-rspo-fails-to-uphold-its-own-rules/

Redd Monitor https://theecologist.org/2015/nov/19/sustainable-palm-oil-rspos-greenwashing-and-fraudulent-audits-exposed

Environmental Investigation Agency: Who’s watching the Watchmen (2019) https://eia-international.org/news/palm-oil-watchdogs-sustainability-guarantee-is-still-a-destructive-con/

Environmental Investigation Agency: Who’s watching the Watchmen (2015): https://eia-international.org/report/who-watches-the-watchmen/

Mongabay Perspective (2020) https://news.mongabay.com/2020/08/palm-oil-certification-sustainable-rspo-deforestation-habitat-study/ RSPO meaningless

Palm Oil and Biodiversity (2018) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/26/palm-oil-disastrous-for-wildlife-but-here-to-stay-experts-warn

Forbes http://www.forbes.com/sites/jwebb/2016/11/30/amnesty-international-slams-colgate-nestle-and-unilever-for-palm-oil-supply-chain-abuses/2/#456cd1564161

Food First (2019) https://foodfirst.org/the-forest-farms-still-stand-indonesias-krui-forest-farmers-persist-in-the-face-of-capitalisms-relentless-squeeze/

BBC November 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-54798452

As you will see, in 2015, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Grassroots released the report Who Watches the Watchmen? It revealed reckless management, extensive fraud as well as sub-standard and underhand assurance processes within the RSPO. The RSPO is often hailed as the best certification scheme for palm oil based on its standard – the Principles and Criteria (P&C). However, it receives far less scrutiny as to how it is ensuring its standards are adhered to and, therefore, its impact. Four years on from that report, the RSPO is about to start implementing its new and improved P&C – and we return to the scene of the crime to assess what, if anything, has changed and how the RSPO has responded to the serious concerns raised in 2015. Investigations have found that the action taken by the RSPO is severely lacking. Despite it setting up an Assurance Task Force, this body has failed to deliver and complete its objectives. The Assurance Task Force stands as one of the worst-run working groups of the RSPO. It has been disorganized, unprofessionally managed, and has chronically missed deadlines. The last update from the Assurance Task Force in 2018 reported 55 per cent of the activities were incomplete. Of the five key objectives under the Task Force, only the development of Free, Prior and Informed Consent guidelines has been completed, but their effectiveness is unknown. For the other four objectives, the actions and outputs under each of them has not led to the fulfillment of the objectives. Many of the same issues remain, have recurred and could easily occur again.

Non-adherence to the RSPO’s standards is systemic and widespread, and has led to ongoing land conflicts, labor abuses and destruction of forests. As the world approaches 2020 targets to halt deforestation, the RSPO needs to rapidly implement radical solutions to restore its credibility. We question whether the RSPO is willing and able to rectify its systemic failures – ultimately, voluntary certification is too limited by its voluntary nature.

The Watchmen report identified:

  • Auditors providing fraudulent assessments that cover up violations of the RSPO Standard and procedures;
  • Auditors failing to identify indigenous land right claims;
  • Auditors failing to identify social conflicts arising due to abuse of community rights;
  • Auditors failing to identify serious labor abuses;
  • Auditors failing to identify risks of trafficked labor being used in plantations;
  • Ambiguity over legal compliance;
  • Auditors providing methodologically and substantively flawed High Conservation Value (HCV) area assessments that will enable destruction of HCVs;
  • Certification bodies displaying weak understanding of the P&C standard;
  • Certification bodies providing suspect assessments in response to legitimate complaints from NGOs, which fail to address the substance of the complaints;
  • Conflicts of interest due to links between certification bodies and plantation companies.

Following the publication of the Watchmen report, a Resolution on ‘Ensuring quality, oversight and credibility of RSPO assessments’ which compelled the RSPO to act on the concerns raised was adopted in 2015 by RSPO members. The RSPO formed the Assurance Task Force (ATF) in 2016. (Better late than never.)

Four years later, significant concerns about the RSPO’s assurance systems still remain. More widely the credibility and impact of third-party certification schemes is in doubt.

The New York Declaration on Forests concluded in September 2019 that deforestation has accelerated not diminished, despite certification schemes.

In 2018, the RSPO adopted a new and improved Principles and Criteria (P&C) that includes provisions for ensuring no deforestation, no new planting on peat, the protection of human rights defenders, improved workers’ rights and better smallholder inclusion. All audits undertaken from November 2019 will be assessed for compliance with this new P&C 2018. In 2019, the RSPO also announced it would establish a permanent Assurance Standing Committee (ASC). These developments are a natural point at which to take stock and undertake an analysis of the performance of the RSPO’s systems to-date.

With that powerful admission firmly on the table, what did RSPO stand for prior to 2019? The producers and buyers throughout the supply chain were clearly duped. That or they were complicit in one of the most destructive green-washing schemes in history.

The Watchmen report raised a number of concerns around the RSPO’s complaints system including that it failed to properly address the complicity of auditors in non-compliances which led to complaints, that certification bodies were allowed to assess complaints for companies they had certified – a clear conflict of interest – and measures were not taken against auditors even when the culpability of auditors was established in the complaints.

One of the key shortcomings highlighted was RSPO’s inability to detect violations before considerable harm had occurred and its unwillingness to contemplate a system which proactively identifies violation through the its own processes.

As of October 2019, there were 38 open complaints in the RSPO system. The longest has been open nine and a half years. About one third have been open more for than three years. On average, it takes 700 days before complaints are closed. According to the RSPO, the most frequent complaints are on Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), HCV areas and certification bodies – the very same issues documented in the Watchmen report.

The failures raised back in both 2013 and 2015 still remain institutionalized. Many NGOs have raised continuing concerns about the RSPO’s complaints – Profundo provides

recent examples of such concerns, as do the case studies in this report. RSPO members quitting the RSPO rather than resolving complaints remains a problem and seems to prevent the RSPO from sanctioning members over complaints to minimize its risk of losing members. The RSPO adopted a resolution in 2018 to try and discourage members with unresolved complaints from avoiding their obligations by divesting or membership withdrawal. It is yet to be seen how well this can be implemented.

According to the Forest People:

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) accepted a complaint against Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), alleging numerous violations of Indonesian law and RSPO standards. Based on state-of-the-art GIS and satellite imagery, the complaint alleges that GAR is illegally operating oil palm plantations inside Indonesia’s protected Forest Zone. The complaint, lodged by Forest Peoples Programme and Elk Hills Research, cites recent bribery convictions of multiple GAR officials in Central Kalimantan as evidence that the company was both aware of these land-use violations and corruptly tried to cover its tracks.  According to the complaint, over 75,000 hectares of GAR’s land appear to be being used for unlawful oil palm production, representing over 15% of GAR’s total plantation area.

FPP and Elk Hills Research have called on RSPO to investigate these serious violations of RSPO standards and to suspend the sustainability certificates of GAR’s operations.

“RSPO knew about this bribery case when it was first reported but took no action. The RSPO Complaints Panel has also delayed for years taking action on the numerous other human rights violations and land disputes by GAR that we have exposed in previous complaints but which remain unresolved” says Marcus Colchester, FPP’s Senior Policy Advisor.

“The RSPO is meant to ensure accountability but instead allows impunity. This must end,” said Colchester.

“For too long, Golden Agri has benefited financially from unsustainable and unethical practices, while using its RSPO membership to represent to investors and customers that it behaves sustainably and ethically,” said Brennan Bilberry, co-founder of Elk Hills Research. “The serious evidence of deforestation, bribery, and general lawlessness we have uncovered warrant quick action by the RSPO, so it can put an end to what appears to be GAR’s systemic misconduct. It is time for multinational consumer goods companies to make good on their sustainability commitments by re-examining their relationship with companies that contribute to deforestation and corruption.”

US investors interested in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) objectives funded the work by Elk Hills Research, which contributed to this complaint—the first of its magnitude.

“It’s time for investors who are serious about ESG to move from mere passive avoidance to more active engagement, either by demanding that problematic companies change their practices or, if necessary, by exposing flagrant violations of environmental and good-governance laws. By working to uncover wrongdoing like that alleged in our complaint, investors can ensure that the worst offenders suffer real consequences, which may be key to preventing corporate wrongdoing,” said Jamie Crooks, co-founder of Elk Hills Research.

Thanks to Forest People! I applaud your work.

With that said, the question remains, what does RSPO stand for today? In a complaint filed in 2020 by Forest People, it claims that RSPO is complicit in bribery schemes, cover-ups and overall mismanagement. So, why should the world believe them after 16 years of crimes against nature and humanity?

One of the founders of the group is Paul Polman, the former CEO of Unilever. He has just been tapped to head a global effort against greenwashing. Please ask him to drain the swamp at RSPO. The group must be part of the solution. It can’t continue to help cover up the problem. Meanwhile, ask yourself if you really need Nutella, Girl Scout Cookies and other junk foods that are responsible for destroying vital ecosystems. Ask yourself if a biofuel is really a good thing if the “bio” means rainforest destruction. There is a better path forward than wholesale destruction and fraud. Mr. Polman, answers begin with the truth. I’m here to help.

deforestation and global warming

Sacred Seedlings is a global initiative to support forest conservationreforestationurban forestrycarbon capture, sustainable agriculture and wildlife conservation. Sustainable land management and land use are critical to the survival of entire ecosystems.