THE BLOG

Rapacious War Against Nature: Indonesian Palm Oil

02/09/2013 10:04 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2013

A couple decades ago just prior to my postgraduate studies at The University of Melbourne I had the privilege of visiting an Indonesian rainforest. I encourage everyone to spend one night in a tropical rainforest; its rich array and cacophony of jungle life will change your life -- forever.

A lot has changed since then -- the ferocity and scale of 'The War Against Nature' is heartbreaking -- 300 football fields an hour of priceless tropical rainforests are being felled to make room for unregulated and unsustainable palm oil plantations.

In the 1960s, 82 percent of Indonesia's 17,000 islands were endowed with tropical rainforests brimming with life. Today 48 percent are covered with patches of Earth's biological treasures easily equivalent to Fort Knox, the Museum of Modern Art, the Louvre or the Prado. An incredible balance exists between the characteristics of all components of a rainforest from the tiniest insects, to the amount of sunlight; to the vast numbers of tree species, to water -- the lifeblood of the Earth.

The peatland swamp tropical rainforests in Kallista Alam, Sumatra were I stayed in the early 1990s is gone. Rivers on almost every island now flow irregularly due to colossal deforestation; all islands suffer from massive soil erosion especially from draining thousands of years old peatland swamps; chlorine from pulp mills and mining course through the run-off; wildlife poaching is rampant; thousands of orangutans are scorched to death annually as forests are deliberately set alight; Bali and Javan tigers are extinct; there are less than 200 critically endangered Sumatran rhinos remaining and about 45 critically endangered Java rhinos alive; about 1,500 critically endangered remaining Borneo pygmy elephants are regularly poached and giant grouper and humphead wrasse are slaughtered in the Wakatobi Marine National Park with cyanide fishing, which kills all life on coral reefs. In 1989 there were five masses of tropical glaciers on the slopes of Puncak Jaya at 16,020 feet. By 2009 climate change consumed two glaciers and the remaining three are doomed by 2026.

Before I explain what's fueling these escalating atrocities against Nature to the detriment of all humans, let me tell you why rainforests are so vitality important to the wellbeing of our planet. And then, what each of us can do to make a difference and stop this annihilation.

Living, breathing tropical rainforests are 'total abundance.' They make rain clouds, daily. The rain sustains all life and the white clouds reflect incoming solar radiation, which is the highest at the equator and those white clouds are of paramount importance for keeping Earth within a habitable temperature range for Homo sapiens -- especially since we are missing record amounts of white ice around the globe due to climate change.

Tropical rainforests along with coral reefs have the highest diversity of life forms on our globe. According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute over 2,000 tropical rainforest plants (including Indonesia) contain the following potent chemicals that offer humans relief from: inflammation, fungal diseases, rheumatism, diabetes, muscle tension, malaria, coronary disease, skin diseases, arthritis, glaucoma and dozens of other cancers with thousands of medicines awaiting discovery. The caveat: Stop destroying all priceless tropical forests.

Tropical rainforests are crucial in helping humans fight climate change. Trees are the greatest CO2 warehouses ever to have evolved (over the past 350 million years) on Earth. In fact, for every metric ton of wood created, 1.5 metric tons of CO2 is absorbed and 1 metric ton of oxygen is released. In about a decade there will be an additional one billion people on Earth - that's a lot more oxygen that Earthlings will require; tropical rainforests have a huge role to play in supplying our birthrights: Clean air and fresh water.

Tropical forests supply myriad other ecosystem services including foods, spices, honey, non-timber forest products and homes for both indigenous peoples and wildlife.

Tropical forests are also a hotbed for evolution - an awesome potential for new forms of life to develop or a process known as speciation.

From 2000 to 2010 according to the United Nations -- Earth lost three times the area equivalent to California in tropical rainforests. Tropical rainforests and coral reefs are our grandchildren's legacy; they must be safeguarded.

The value of living, intact and vibrant tropical rainforests significantly outweighs clearing the jungle to obtain a one-off payment (in many cases just to make high quality paper) leaving barren (often burnt-over) lands and their thin, fragile soils exposed to irreparable erosion.

Indonesian tropical rainforests are being converted into unsustainable and unregulated palm oil plantations. Palm oil is the world's most used vegetable oil and its consumption in China, India and elsewhere is escalating, rapidly.

Palm oil comes from the fruit of African oil palm trees or Elaeis guineenis. It's used in a wide assortment of food products, animal feeds, soaps, cosmetics and bio-diesel (which by the way the EPA has ruled against its use in America).

The rapacious and corrupt massacre of Indonesian tropical rainforests has yielded high margins of returns for investors as currently Indonesia and Malaysia control about 85 percent of the world's market share or $40 billion in sales, annually.

As if this weren't bad enough the insatiable demand for more palm oil is fueling the draining of Indonesia's tropical peatland swamps. Diverse tropical, climate-buffering rainforests are being turned into void, monoculture palm oil plantations.

In addition to plundering these magnificent tropical rainforests -- akin to burning each work of art within the Louvre, this senseless destruction of Nature is taking thousands of years worth of carbon storage in the peatland swamps and literally washing it down the river.

These 50- to 70-foot thick saturated peat swamps contain about 58 billion tons of stored heat-trapping carbon, which if left unregulated will all bleed into our atmosphere within the next 15 years as all swamps will be drained.

In May 2010, Norway entered into a bilateral agreement with Indonesia offering $1 billion compensation for not destroying tropical rainforests. Clearly, it is not a large enough compensation. It is perplexing and frustrating to report that all 200 countries at the Doha climate talks could not agree to save Indonesia's 105 million acres of remaining rainforests. One small agreement to protect 176,000 acres of Borneo's Kalimantan forest was salvaged at the tail end of the December (2012) climate talks.

Climate change is occurring rapidly and Earth forests on every continent are beginning to die including immense swaths of the Amazon basin -- 200 nations must come together to protect all the remaining tropical rainforests. Moreover, all future palm oil plantations require sustainable certification. There are enough denuded tropical lands amongst the Indonesian islands and elsewhere, which could easily accommodate sustainable palm oil plantations to meet the rising market demands.

In the meantime, each of us is required to lend a helping hand. Scrutinize all products you buy as palm oil is likely an ingredient in the following items: ice creams, chocolate, biscuits, crackers, chips, margarine, fruit juices, pet foods, batter, soaps, toothpastes, laundry powders, detergents, cosmetics (listed as Elaeis guineenis). Refuse to buy it! If we all vote together with our wallets our purchasing power will stop the destruction of tropical rainforests.

Please support the work of Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, Rain Forest Action Network, Deforest Action and Greenpeace. Our children are counting on us to do the right thing.

Earth Dr Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist and co-author with Chris Maser of their soon to be released book: Life, The Wonder of It All.