November 17, 2016 12:00 pm JST
Tea Leaves

The destructive tyranny of palm oil

PETER GUEST

Illegally cleared land in the Singkil peat swamp, Aceh, Indonesia (Photo by Peter Guest)

The Christmas decorations are out on Singapore's Orchard Road -- huge plastic facsimiles of a northern European version of winter that is both familiar and deeply strange. Separated from its climatic context, Christmas here is a consumer festival, a perfect reflection of the intertwining globalization of culture and commerce.

So close to the equator, there are few signs of the changing seasons that are familiar to a displaced Brit, which was why it was strange in August to wake up to an English autumn scene, of white mist drifting between the tower blocks, and the smell of woodsmoke wafting through the air-conditioning ducts. That was our one day of haze so far this year -- when smoke from ongoing forest-clearing in Indonesia made it across the straits and into our living rooms.

It is a constant source of surprise to me that Singapore, or at least the Singapore expressed by Orchard Road, the thick vein of gleaming mirrored-glass malls that cuts through downtown, rarely makes the connection between the smoke and the mirrors.

The single day of haze was a vast improvement on the apocalyptic vision in 2015, when a strong El Nino created a long, hot dry season. This provided ever more fuel for the flames, many of which were set on drained peat bogs. The scale of the clearance is hard to comprehend. In just one week in June, 1,400 sq. km were torched. Research by the World Resources Institute showed that at its fiery peak, in September and October, Indonesia was emitting more carbon on a daily basis than the entire U.S.

All told, an estimated 100,000 people died prematurely in Southeast Asia in 2015 as a result of the haze, according to a study by Harvard and Columbia universities.

Those fires were lit to make space for oil palm, a crop that has become an emblem of the unsustainable growth of the global food system, and in particular of packaged food. Indonesian farmers have expanded their agricultural frontiers, seeking to gain access to a $60 billion global market that is deeply embedded in the food and consumer goods industries.

Since last November, clearing peat for agriculture has been illegal in Indonesia. In April, Indonesian President Joko Widodo declared a moratorium on all new licenses for oil palm plantations. While this has slowed the expansion, it has by no means stopped it.

The horror

Which is why, in late October as Halloween approached, I found myself trapped in a claustrophobic horror, fighting through waist-deep red muck -- the Singkil peat swamp in Aceh, Indonesia.

Ahead, two local activists from Haka, an Acehnese campaign group, each a good 20kg lighter than me, seemed to glide effortlessly over the surface, pausing only to light cigarettes and watch, more amused than concerned, as I fought to keep up. After 200 meters we reached a tunnel carved into the forest. There, an excavator was at work, clearing land for an illegal palm oil plantation. Close by, another site was already stripped back to the bare and parched earth.

Both sites were the work of smallholders, who have ducked global attempts to slow the industry's advance. The focus on big players, and certification initiatives -- like the recent Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in Bangkok -- have failed to meaningfully curb small farmers, who see oil palm as a quick way out of poverty.

The structure of the palm oil industry, with small farmers selling into an opaque system of middlemen and mills, who then sell on to the major players, is such that it has to expand, relentlessly, to meet the near-bottomless demand for a global market. That market is, as often as not, blind to the consequences.

Why it matters

Finding a better way is vital not just for the region's ecology, but for the planet's climate. Indonesia is among the top 10 global carbon emitters -- its exact position in that ranking depends on how you calculate the figure -- and the majority of its emissions come not from the cars jamming its cities or its coal-fired power stations, but from how it uses its land. Worse still, the land now being turned over or burned back is part of a dwindling reserve of "carbon sinks" that can sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and offset some of the emissions driving global warming.

The swamps that are being drained, the forests that are being burned, are the result of our unconscious consumption -- in our Halloween candy and our Christmas candles, in our soaps, fast food and cosmetics. In Southeast Asia's fast-growing cities, consumerism is an unavoidable consequence of globalization. But unconscious consumerism doesn't have to be.

Peter Guest is a Singapore-based writer and photographer.

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