Guest blog by Matt Williams, Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project  

In my previous blog, I examined the vast amounts of carbon stored beneath the peat-swamp forests of Indonesia, in southeast Asia. Today I’m going to look at the threats facing these forests, in particular the backwards and perverted conversion of these forests to oil palm. 

This conversion is the number one cause of deforestation in Indonesia, and indeed in countries across Southeast Asia. Research released in 2013 showed that 3.5 million hectares of rainforest had been converted to oil palm in Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. In 2013 Greenpeace also calculated that from 2009-11 oil palm was the number one cause of deforestation in Indonesia, including in the province of Central Kalimantan, where I live and work.

Palm oil goes into a huge range of everyday products, from biscuits to chocolate to cosmetics and toiletries. It’s hard to avoid it when you pop into the supermarket to pick up some food for that evening or lunch the next day.

  Photo: Matt Adam Williams

But, if the taste of orangutan doesn’t stick in your throat enough when you’re chowing down on a bar of chocolate, there’s a far worse, far darker secret to this story. Palm oil is a biofuel, a so-called green fuel that’s used to replace petrol. The assumption is that because it comes from fast-growing plants, all the emissions it releases are quickly recaptured.

But, there are two big problems with this. First, when rainforests are cleared and burned, huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane are released. Second, if agriculture and food production make way for oil palm, then that food production has to move elsewhere, and that can cause deforestation somewhere else, resulting in even more emissions.

But rather like the flat-earth mindset of many centuries ago, the European legislation that drives the use of palm oil simply pretends that those emissions don’t exist. In fact, if all the emissions palm oil causes are honestly accounted for, it can actually be more polluting than the petrol it’s supposed to replace. So not only is it causing deforestation, but it’s adding to, rather than easing, the problem of climate change. And, even more perversely, as climate change gets worse rainforests are more susceptible to natural fires. 

European Union legislation (the Renewable Energy Directive) obliges member states like the UK to meet targets for a certain percentage of vehicle fuel to come from renewable sources, which currently include a huge amount of biofuels.  Under the EU legislation, the UK has its own target for including biofuels in our engines by blending it with regular petrol, so palm oil could be entering your tank every time you fill up. Yet estimates suggest that using biofuels could be the equivalent of putting up to an extra 26 million cars on the roads of the EU between now and 2020.

Until recently it wasn’t known how much palm oil was contributing to the EU’s biofuels market. But new research commissioned by Friends of the Earth shows a massive growth in both the overall amount and the proportion of biofuels coming from palm oil. EU use of palm oil as a biofuels grew by 365% from 2006-12, taking the proportion of biodiesel made from palm oil from one tenth to one fifth, far larger than previously assumed. This means that palm oil-driven deforestation is driven both by the food and cosmetic products markets, but also in no small part by the vehicle fuel market in Europe.

Therefore there’s increasing pressure on rainforests like Sabangau, where I’m based. Even protected forests could be taken out of protected status and designated for conversion. A presidential moratorium on concessions on peatland that’s over a certain depth is regularly ignored and flouted, and illegal fires are often set to clear land for conversion to oil palm.

This issue has so many intersecting actors and drivers it can be difficult to know where to start – it’s a ‘wicked problem’ as the experts would say. It’s therefore crucial to lend your support to campaigns and projects like those of the RSPB and the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project, whose on-the-ground work is making a difference to places like the Harapan and the Sabangau rainforests, on the front line of advancing wave oil palm.

And when you're buying biscuits, chocolate, cosmetics, even petrol - check for palm oil and use your purchasing power to help retailers make better choices.