If you’re eating a food that came in a wrapper while reading this, you probably eating palm oil — at least there’s a 50/50 chance you are. About half the packaged food found in a supermarket contains palm oil, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and a lot of that product comes from the lush archipelago of Indonesia.
In 2007, I took a very, very long (and very very hot) journey by plane, car, and riverboat to a remote palm oil plantation in the province of Riau on Indonesia’s Sumatra island. Greenpeace had recently set up a camp at the edge of a new plantation, helping journalists like me see firsthand the environmental impact that the growing industry was having on tropical forests across the nation. At that time, Indonesia’s palm oil industry was in the throes of a big boom to meet the rising global demand for biodiesel. Between 1995 and 2005, the amount of Indonesian land being used to grow oil palms increased by some 8.6 million acres (3.5 million hectares), more than doubling total plantation area, according to a Credit Suisse report published at the time.
The scene was grim. A smoky haze hung over miles of what had recently been a towering peatland forest. The charred land had been burned to make way for the tiny green plants that would eventually yield this important global commodity. Tropical forests naturally help filter carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and clearing of Indonesia’s tropical forests has helped make this non-industrialized nation the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Clearing peatland forests, which contains decades if not centuries of that filtered carbon, releases even more of these gases into the atmosphere. And yet at the same time, the thriving industry was a crucial source of income in Riau, both for local farmers and for migrant workers who came from the island’s north to plant trees.
Four years later, the challenge to find the right balance between palm oil companies, the environment and local livelihoods continues. My colleague Jacob Templin recently visited West Kalimantan, another province in Indonesia, to report on the tension between a palm oil company PT KAL and the local communities where the company wants to plant. Jacob follows an employee of PT KAL who is trying to work from the inside to make sure that if forest clearing happens on the company’s behalf, it is at least done in the most responsible way possible.
Here’s Jacob’s excellent video, produced in association with the International Reporting Project.