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Palm Oil Was Supposed to Help Save the Planet. Instead It Unleashed a Catastrophe.

Palm Oil Was Supposed to Help Save the Planet. Instead It Unleashed a Catastrophe.
A decade ago, the U.S. mandated the use of vegetable oil in biofuels, leading to industrial-scale deforestation — and a huge spike in carbon emissions.

The remains of an Indonesian rain forest that was cleared to make way for oil palms.CreditCreditAshley Gilbertson/VII, for The New York Times

This article is a partnership between ProPublica, where Abrahm Lustgarten is a senior reporter, and The New York Times Magazine.

The fields outside Kotawaringin village in Central Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, looked as if they had just been cleared by armies. None of the old growth remained — only charred stumps poking up from murky, dark pools of water. In places, smoke still curled from land that days ago had been covered with lush jungle. Villagers had burned it all down, clearing the way for a lucrative crop whose cultivation now dominates the entire island: the oil-palm tree.

The dirt road was ruler straight, but deep holes and errant boulders tossed our tiny Toyota back and forth. Trucks coughed out black smoke, their beds brimming over with seven-ton loads of palm fruit rocking back and forth on tires as tall as people. Clear-cut expanses soon gave way to a uniform crop of oil-palm groves: orderly trees, a sign that we had crossed into an industrial palm plantation. Oil-palm trees look like the coconut-palm trees you see on postcards from Florida — they grow to more than 60 feet tall and flourish on the peaty wetland soil common in lowland tropics. But they are significantly more valuable. Every two weeks or so, each tree produces a 50-pound bunch of walnut-size fruit, bursting with a red, viscous oil that is more versatile than almost any other plant-based oil of its kind. Indonesia is rich in timber and coal, but palm oil is its biggest export. Around the world, the oil from its meat and seeds has long been an indispensable ingredient in everything from soap to ice cream. But it has now become a key ingredient of something else: biodiesel, fuel for diesel engines that has been wholly or partly made from vegetable oil.

Finally we emerged, and as we crested a hill, the plantations fell into an endless repetition of tidy bunches stretching for miles, looking almost like the rag of a Berber carpet. Occasionally, a shard of an old ironwood tree shot into the air, a remnant of the primordial canopy of dense rain forest that dominated the land until very recently.

Our driver, a 44-year-old island native and whistle-blower named Gusti Gelambong, had brought us here to show us the incredible destruction wrought by the growing demand for palm oil. The oldest male among nine siblings, he was modestly built but exuded a wiry strength. His father, he told us, was a king of one of Borneo’s dozens of Dayak tribes, the sixth descendant of the sultan of Old Kotawaringin, and his mother came from a line of warriors who served in the Indonesian special forces. In 2001, he said, he took part in a brutal ethnic cleansing of Indonesians who had moved in from the nearby island of Madura. He macheted his way through the nearby town of Pangkalan Bun, slaughtering dozens of people. He felt no remorse about the violence. But the palm-oil companies, Gelambong said, were much stronger than the Madurese. As we approached an intersection, we could see two plantation guards lying back in a shack, rifles propped against their knees. He sped past the guards, averting his eyes.

Most of the plantations around us were new, their rise a direct consequence of policy decisions made half a world away. In the mid-2000s, Western nations, led by the United States, began drafting environmental laws that encouraged the use of vegetable oil in fuels — an ambitious move to reduce carbon dioxide and curb global warming. But these laws were drawn up based on an incomplete accounting of the true environmental costs. Despite warnings that the policies could have the opposite of their intended effect, they were implemented anyway, producing what now appears to be a calamity with global consequences.

The tropical rain forests of Indonesia, and in particular the peatland regions of Borneo, have large amounts of carbon trapped within their trees and soil. Slashing and burning the existing forests to make way for oil-palm cultivation had a perverse effect: It released more carbon. A lot more carbon. NASA researchers say the accelerated destruction of Borneo’s forests contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, an explosion that transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of such emissions. Instead of creating a clever technocratic fix to reduce American’s carbon footprint, lawmakers had lit the fuse on a powerful carbon bomb that, as the forests were cleared and burned, produced more carbon than the entire continent of Europe. The unprecedented palm-oil boom, meanwhile, has enriched and emboldened many of the region’s largest corporations, which have begun using their newfound power and wealth to suppress critics, abuse workers and acquire more land to produce oil.

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A worker on an oil-palm plantation on Borneo.CreditAshley Gilbertson/VII, for The New York Times

We arrived at another plantation and stopped near where a stream coursed through the bog. People still lived here: A mother bathed two children beneath a culvert, and a shirtless young boy ran through row after row of identical young palms in the distance, surrounded by dragonflies and sparrows. The uniformity of the world he was growing up in was striking, like the endless plains of drilling rigs in an East Texas oil field. It was, in a way, an astounding achievement, the ruthless culmination of mankind’s long effort to extract every last remaining bit of the earth’s seemingly boundless natural wealth. But it was also frightening. This was what an American effort to save the planet looked like. It was startlingly efficient, extremely profitable and utterly disastrous.

The last thing anyone expected from President George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address was a proposal for the largest-ever cut in the nation’s use of gasoline. The president was no climate champion — he had backed out of the Kyoto Protocol shortly after taking office in 2001 — but he did favor what he called “energy independence.” He had declared the United States “addicted” to foreign oil, yet dependence on Middle Eastern fuel continued. Hurricane Katrina, and the lingering damage it did to oil pipelines and refineries, had pushed up gas prices, renewed fears of global warming and kept a firm thumb on the economy.

Now, Bush proposed, homegrown energy could be drawn from the rural places most in need of an economic boost. Clean-coal initiatives would generate the electricity of the future, but it was biofuels — in particular ethanol, which is largely distilled from corn, and biodiesel, made with vegetable oil — that would power the vehicles of the future. Within 10 years, the country would replace 35 billion gallons of petroleum, or one-fifth of all the gas and diesel burned, with fuel made from plants. The measure, as he put it, would confront “the serious challenge of global climate change.” Unsaid, but clear to anyone paying attention, was that it would also please America’s agriculture industry, which had been lobbying for ethanol and advanced biofuel research for years. The House chamber erupted in applause.

On the night of the president’s address, Timothy Searchinger sat on his couch in Takoma Park, Md., just a few miles from the Capitol, and watched on television, struck by what seemed to him a glaring lapse in logic. “Oh, my God, what the hell is happening here?” he recalls wondering aloud.

Searchinger wasn’t a scientist; he was a lawyer, working with the Environmental Defense Fund. But he saw a serious flaw in the claim that the president’s proposal would ameliorate climate change. Searchinger knew that cropland had already consumed virtually every arable acre across the Midwest. Quintupling biofuel production would require a huge amount of additional arable land, far more than existed in the United States. Unless Americans planned to eat less, that meant displacing food production to some other country with unused land — and he knew that when forests are cut, or new land is opened for farming, substantial new amounts of carbon can be released into the atmosphere. Forests hold as much as 45 percent of the planet’s carbon stored on land, and old-growth trees in particular hold a great deal of that carbon, typically far more than any of the crops that replace them. When the trees are cut down, most of that carbon is released.

Scientists and lawyers who study environmental impact often deploy “carbon-life-cycle analysis” to determine just how much carbon a given product is removing from, or introducing to, the environment over the course of its production and consumption. When a truck burns biodiesel, the carbon emissions that come from its tailpipe aren’t much different from those of a truck burning petroleum. But a part of the biodiesel emissions aren’t counted, because — in theory — they have been balanced out: Plants absorb carbon from the atmosphere when they grow, and fuel experts subtract that sequestered carbon from the tailpipe emission, completing a transaction that they say balances at zero.

In ideal circumstances — unvegetated land planted for the first time — this balancing out really happens. When corn grows, it soaks up carbon, and when it is consumed (whether as food or fuel), it releases that carbon back into the air. But the analysis breaks down when faced with the reality of land use. Almost everywhere in the world, planting more corn or soy for biofuel would involve creating more farmland, which in turn would involve cutting down whatever was already growing on that land. And that would mean releasing a huge amount of carbon into the air, with nothing to balance the books. As Searchinger watched Bush’s call for an unprecedented increase in biofuel production, his hunch was that the biofuel balance sheet would turn out to be tragically shortsighted.

The remains of an Indonesian rain forest that was cleared to make way for oil palms.CreditCreditAshley Gilbertson/VII, for The New York Times

Source: New York Times Magazine

By:  By Abrahm Lustgarten
Nov. 20, 2018

LINK:  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/20/magazine/palm-oil-borneo-climate-catastrophe.html?nl=top-stories&nlid=60523142ries&ref=c

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