The connections between climate change, deforestation and the growth of palm oil plantations are pretty clear. What to do is another thing. While it is easy enough to demand that the Indonesian government stop creating palm oil plantations this is an unrealistic objective. Caught between a rapidly increasing fiscal account deficit and its stated development goals, palm oil production is, like it or not, here to stay.

There are signs however that changes is afoot. To increase revenue, the Indonesian government would like to expand exports of palm oil to new markets, with Eastern Europe particularly targeted for expansion. However this runs into a major problem: from 2010, the EU will require biofuels to achieve a net carbon dioxide saving over oil of 35%. At present only one out of 300 listed producers do this, primarily because of the huge amount of carbon released into the atmosphere when clearing land away.

Furthermore, echoing one of the conclusions of the Economy and Environment Program for South East Asia (EEPSEA) report, fears about increases in floods and landslides due to deforestation have led the State of the Environment to instruct local administrations to cancel plans to convert natural forest into commercial areas. While putting the emphasis for action on the local administrations Masnellyarti Hilman, from the environment ministry, states that ‘It is time for local administrations to think in the long term rather than simply focus on the economic benefits of the short term, because the threat of natural disasters will most likely increase with climate change in the future’.

A solution? Use degraded land

This has the potential to not only help Indonesia’s economy but provide jobs and potential carbon offsets. Project POTICO (Palm Oil, Timber & Carbon Offsets) aims to rehabilitate 1.25 million acres of degraded land into palm plantations over three years. Created by the WRI (World Resources Institute) and NewPage Corporation, this new scheme was formed partially in response to changes in the US Lacey Act banning the use of paper from illegally harvested trees.

The link between illegal logging and palm oil plantation creation is primarily economic: as it takes four years from planting to generating an income from oil production, the revenue from the cleared timber helps offset costs. POTICO aims to counter this by creating up to three potential revenue streams:

  • potential carbon offsets under REDD;
  • a sustainable palm oil certification scheme to generate long-term cash flows;
  • timber certification whereby oil palm companies with current timber concessions, are paid not to use the timber concessions until the palm oil plantation starts commercial production.

The potential for this is huge: Indonesia has 15-20 million hectares of degraded land. As Jonathan Lash commented “Project POTICO will relieve pressure on Indonesia’s virgin tropical rainforests, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from forest clearing, and prevent the loss of biodiversity in forests slated for conversion to oil palm plantations.”  While hurdles remain to be overcome, especially in how to demarcate degraded land from rainforest, this project suggests a way where palm oil production can increase while reducing greenhouse emissions and stopping deforestation.

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