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Indonesia Shows It’s Possible to Tame Rainforest Destruction - The Wall Street Journal - 27.02.23

KUBU RAYA, Indonesia—A decade ago, Indonesia was destroying its tropical rainforest at a faster rate than almost any other country reports Jon Emont.

Virgin forest five times the area of Los Angeles was vanishing every year in one of the earth’s most biologically diverse places, in large part to make way for plantations producing palm oil for consumer goods such as lipstick, pizza dough and shampoo.

Now, forest destruction in Indonesia is at its lowest pace in two decades. The rate of forest loss fell by more than half in Indonesia from 2015 through 2021, while it worsened in Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, homes to two other vast rainforests. It is a turnaround with lessons for policy makers, businesses and environmentalists around the world who are concerned about the effects of rainforest loss.

Indonesia’s success owes to a three-pronged and overlapping approach. Strict directives prohibiting wholesale forest clearance flowed from the top rungs of government starting about five years ago. Multinational consumer-product companies pledged to avoid palm oil that involved forest destruction, blacklisted forest-slashing plantations and tracked their activities with satellites.

And environmental nonprofits exposed murky supply chains that long made it hard to know whether palm oil came from a company that was knocking down forests.

Indonesian palm oil companies were opposed at first. They pursued lawsuits against government actions, lobbied politicians and masked their dealings with opaque corporate structures. In the end, it became clear to many companies they had to either overhaul their businesses or risk losing them.

The shift in Indonesian rainforests’ fortunes is evident on the western edge of Borneo, the big island shared mostly by Indonesia and Malaysia. For years, a Borneo operation that is part of a family’s palm-oil empire drained and cleared vast stretches of swampy rainforest to plant palm trees.

In a large section of that operation’s 50,000-acre Borneo concession, cleared of forests in the years up to 2017, rows of oil-palm trees blanket the area. On a recent day, workers were using metal-tipped poles to pick palm fruit for transport to a processing mill.

The other side of the concession, once also marked for deforestation, remains lush rainforest. Canals built to drain the land for palm-tree planting have now been dammed. The operators are replanting native trees along riverbanks to fight erosion.

They work with conservation authorities to protect remaining orangutans and are trying to help locals find work alternatives to palm oil, such as raising chickens. A road guard watches for trucks used by illegal loggers.

“What you see here is the system starting to work,” said Paul Polman, who from 2009 to 2019 was the chief executive of British consumer-goods giant Unilever PLC, a major user of palm oil.

In Indonesia, which is home to much of the world’s third-largest tropical rainforest after those in Brazil and central Africa, industrial agriculture expanded aggressively starting in the 1980s. By 2015, 6% of Indonesia’s land area was covered by palm-oil plantations, as domestic and regional investors took advantage of inexpensive land and labor to mint fortunes.

Among them was entrepreneur Martua Sitorus. He, along with his brother Ganda and a network of relatives and business associates, amassed land in Indonesia to grow palm trees and export oil obtained from crushing its fruit.

The article ends with these words:

Unilever said in 2021 that the reduced palm oil expansion could lock in higher prices for years. The company is part of a venture with a biotech firm seeking to develop an alternative.

KPN now controls half a million acres of plantations, an area that is equal to 34 times the size of Manhattan, yet is much smaller than the network once was aiming to amass.

“Market demand forces a company to fall into line with a common approach to sustainability,” said Mr. Wakker, the environmental consultant.

For the full article in pdf with more images, please click here:

Indonesia Shows It’s Possible to Tame Rainforest Destruction – by Jon Emont for The Wall S
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Appeared in the February 28, 2023, print edition as 'Indonesia Tames Rainforest Destruction'.

Forest left standing at a plantation on Borneo island in Indonesia. / Photographs by Muhammad Fadli for The Wall Street Journal

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