Guest Videos: Oil Palms

This may be the most politically polarizing group of trees you’ll ever hear of.


Because people are cutting down the rainforest to grow them. (The other major threat to rainforests in Indonesia, where we’re currently focusing, is illegal logging, a topic in coming weeks after we get to know a few tropical trees on a first-name basis.)

There’s nothing inherently evil about Elaeis.

And palm oil production is one of the wonders of science and technology — the process is painstaking rather than dramatic, but if you’ve ever wondered where palm oil comes from, here’s an example from Thailand:

Growing oil palms in sufficient quantities to meet today’s market demand has led to serious environmental problems that are difficult for people to address.

The following video shows two individuals in impossible situations because of this: Harrison Ford and the high-ranking official he confronts.

If only he hadn’t cut off the Minister when that man began to discuss democracy!

I don’t know what the minister would have said, or what roles for good or bad he may actually play in all this, but it’s true that democracy is new to Indonesia.

Jakarta at dawn. Major cities are a part of Indonesia, too. (Image: Didit Putra, CC BY 2.0)

From what I’ve read, corruption still lingers from the Suharto days of authoritarianism. Decentralization of power and democratization are happening there, but it’s an ongoing, difficult process.

What was this official about to say before the actor cut him off? Possibly some meaningless line of PR; possibly an honest attempt to explain the complexities involved in actually trying to save the rainforest and its people.

We’ll never know. But it’s true that no single approach will work. The situation in Indonesia is complicated.

Per the 2001 and 2007 Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) reports (available here), the best hope for the rainforest and its plant and animal residents, as well as for the people who live around and in it, is action at the district level.

Hopefully that will become more effective with time. In the meantime, what can we do?

Oil palm/rainforest boundary in Borneo. (Image: Lian Pin Koh, CC BY 2.0)

Buying products that use legitimate sources of palm oil, as the Ford video suggests, is helpful. But that alone can’t save the rainforest.

It’s also helpful to celebrate the UNESCO designation of three Indonesian national parks as the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra World Heritage site.

A more difficult task is to look past gut-wrenching videos and reports of dead wildlife and smoldering tracts of former rainforest and try to help Indonesia find a workable balance between too much and too little authority, as well as all the other difficult steps required to build a law-abiding civil society after long-term foreign rule and then decades of home-grown authoritarianism; a 21st-century society that is equitable, economically successful, and in harmony with its natural heritage.

That’s tough, because it’s so complex and takes time. But many people inside and outside Indonesia are committed to doing exactly that. It has short-term benefits and will also be very effective in the long run.

Let’s celebrate the human transition that’s going on there just as much or even more than we celebrate the country’s wildlife and plants.

Meanwhile, scientists are studying the rainforest crisis in four dimensions, i.e., including time. They’ve discovered that, over the last million years, Sundaland’s tropical tree communities have somehow held their own through dramatic environmental changes as global ice ages have come and gone.

But the experts also report that humanity is putting pressure on these forests and their wildlife at the worst possible geological moment.

We’ll look into that in more detail next week.

Featured image: Lian Pin Koh, CC BY 2.0.

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