Shaking Money From Borneo's Trees
Wednesday, November 2, 2005
BETUNG KERIHUN NATIONAL PARK, Indonesia -- A river the color of pale toffee coursed through a valley, carrying several types of rare fish. A young orangutan, a member of a threatened species, dangled merrily by one leg from a tree.
In the heart of Borneo, home to one of the world's last remaining expanses of intact rain forest, Hermas Rintik Maring, an avid conservationist who is native to the area, marveled at the life within the vast canopies of jungle green that for centuries have made this tropical island vital to the health of the region.
At the same time, he said, he fears this pristine forest could fall to the whine of chainsaws and the rumble of bulldozers clearing land for what has been billed as the world's largest palm oil plantation.
The project, brokered by the Indonesian government in Jakarta, could affect as many as 5 million acres of Borneo's forest -- an area slightly smaller than the state of Vermont -- near Indonesia's 1,250-mile-long border with Malaysia. Officials hope China will finance the project on the island, which is divided between Indonesia and Malaysia.
Indonesian officials claim the plantation could bring the area a half a million jobs directly related to the industry and 500,000 more in spin-off jobs in schools, health care and other services. It could produce more than 10 million tons of crude palm oil a year, they said, worth about $4.6 billion. Chinese officials said a project covering 5 million acres could cost up to $10 billion.
But environmentalists such as Hermas, 28, a field officer for the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Indonesia, worry that without careful planning the project could destroy Borneo's profusion of plants, insects and animals.
"It would be one of man's great mistakes," said Hermas, his eyes sweeping across a panorama of olive-colored forests and blue-gray mountains from a clearing 1,800 feet high. "It would be unforgivable."
The plan is still in its infancy. It envisions a series of large plantations owned by private companies and linked by roads and palm oil mills. Exactly where everything would go has not been decided. That lack of clarity has prompted growing controversy.
Palm oil, used in the age of the Egyptian pharaohs, is fast becoming one of the world's leading vegetable oils. The antioxidant-rich oil, squeezed from a reddish fruit about the size of a large plum, is used in products as diverse as chocolate, potato chips, detergent and lipstick. It is now being touted as a bio-fuel -- a clean alternative fuel -- as crude oil prices soar.
Malaysia, Indonesia's more prosperous neighbor to the north, is the world's number one producer. But if the project here proceeds as the government hopes, Indonesia will surpass it.
"Indonesia is lucky that God gave it a good place to build palm oil plantations," said Raden Pardede, a senior adviser to the Economic Affairs Ministry who is working on the project.
Earlier this year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited East and West Kalimantan, two Indonesian provinces on Borneo that border the Malaysian part of the island. He met with governors and mayors, who appealed for roads, jobs and resources to combat rampant illegal logging.