By James Borton
The World Health Organization has had to deal with a lot of criticism and accusations leveled against it by the US over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, so much so that Malaysia’s jumping into the fray is probably one of its least problems. The country is seething after the WHO advised against consuming palm oil during coronavirus, owing to its high content in saturated fats.
Malaysia’s criticism followed promptly – an understandable response from the second-largest palm oil producer after Indonesia, both of which have witnessed demand slumps as a result of coronavirus. It’s therefore surprising that while demand hits have caused factory closures, falling coal consumption and less auto traffic, leading to blue skies the world over, the palm oil industry continues its environmentally damaging practices unabatedly.
Indeed, the spread of Covid-19 has only accelerated illegal logging with fires raging, which are now threatening to compound respiratory illnesses, as government enforcement resources and environmental NGOs are hampered by bans on travel: “While there can be challenges drawing direct correlations, we have witnessed a concerning uptick in deforestation in critical forest areas since the global lockdown has complicated oversight by both governments and corporations,” explains Laurel Sutherlin, senior communications strategist at Rainforest Action Network (RAN).
Indonesian farmers burn huge swath of forests annually to make way for oil-palm plantations and other agricultural expansion, contributing to a vast haze. The burning of peat forests – areas with layers of moist, partially decomposed vegetation that store vast amounts of carbon dioxide – contribute greatly to thick smog and greenhouse emissions. Although peatlands account for only about three percent of the land area, they are a significant carbon sink and store about 30 percent of terrestrially bound carbon.
Normally, these ubiquitous agricultural fires burn over the summer, yet under the cover of Covid-19, farmers are lighting-up more forests to clear land for growing oil palm fruit. According to the World Bank, the burning of an estimated 16,000 square miles of land has cost Indonesia already $5.2 billion in economic losses, while the world lost over 30 million acres of tropical tree cover in 2018, according to Global Forest Watch.
Yet even before the virus’ arrival, palm oil companies in both Malaysia and Indonesia, which has the world’s third-largest tropical forests, were already under government scrutiny over logging, land-clearing, fires, labor abuses and violating the rights of indigenous people. The present road to global recession will likely exacerbate these threats: weak demand and low crude oil prices are causing palm oil prices to fall in tune, disincentivizing investment from companies in conservation and sustainability initiatives.
At best, this will halt what little progress might have been hoped for. More likely, however, it will only further encourage unsustainable practices by firms that are known for ignoring ecological imperatives.
For example, Asia Pulp and Paper – a subsidiary of pulp and palm oil conglomerate Sinar Mas Group that also includes pulp producer Paper Excellence, and owned by the Widjaja family – has been implicated in the forest fires blazing through Indonesia over the past years and has regularly been identified as one of the worst offenders. After defaulting on US$14 billion of bond debt in the late 1990s, the company has become one of the most consistently criticized by Greenpeace and RAN for fueling climate change, far-spread peatland burning and causing the near-extinction of native animal species like Sumatran tigers, orangutans and elephants.
Along with Arara Abadi, another Sinar Mas-affiliated firm, APP’s dismal environmental and human rights record means that pressure has grown on executives to change their ways. APP, however, has continually failed to uphold commitments for more sustainable farming, all the while illegally seizing land from indigenous communities – a practice for which APP and Arara Abadi were called out by Human Rights Watch as early as 2003.
Thus lacking success in going directly after the big conglomerates, activists have begun to name and shame corporate consumers of unethically sourced palm oil (and pulp) in their supply chains as a means to force change. This also includes monitoring the activities of firms who have promised to eschew raw material linked to forest destruction.
Websites like Leuser Watch draw from field investigations, satellite imagery and supply chain research to document and expose deforestation of critical habitat in Southeast Asia, and to connect it to global brands using palm oil in their products. It’s worrying then that many brands are failing to make headway in cleaning up their supply chains.
Environmentalists believe that the pandemic has yet to offer a critical litmus tests for the implementation of long-lasting conservation procedures. If companies and governments allow the coronavirus to be used as a cover to start more fires, and it grows into anything like the scale seen in previous years in Southeast Asia, the 2020 burning season will likely surpass in scale even those of 2019 in terms of respiratory distress. If the 1 million Indonesians suffering from respiratory illness last year are a yardstick, this year, coupled with a flare up of the virus, could prove much more disastrous.
It’s clear that something must be done to stop illegal burning. According to the 2017 peatland map, 2.5 million hectares of Indonesian converted and degraded peatland has to be restored due to its conservation value. The problem is that with the slow rate of peatland restoration, cuts to environmental funding, and oversight limits, Indonesia and others are struggling to reign in agriculture expansion and forest fires. The way forward could be new technologies for better law enforcement, particularly at times when human resources are stretched to the limit.
Indonesia’s “One Map” policy is thus a step towards creating comprehensive peatland monitoring mechanisms, that, through satellite technology, offer an ecological roadmap for peatland conservation and for cooperation between civil society and state agencies. The government has also had plans to deploy a range of digital surveillance technology since the 2015 fires “to enable governance from afar and to ensure companies’ compliance” with conservation and anti-haze regulations. The double jeopardy of ongoing environmental destruction and the coronavirus shows that implementing these innovations should no longer be postponed.
Like Covid-19, biodiversity loss, climate change and haze do not observe any borders. The problems can be managed only through collective action that starts long before they become burning full-blown crises.