“Everything the company does goes against my conscience. But the question remains, who should work from the inside to inform everyone? Who should be pushing that these things are right, these things are acceptable, and these things are not?” says Victor Terran, in this video by Jacob Templin for TIME and the International Reporting Project
(IRP). Templin traveled to Indonesia as part of IRP’s Gatekeeper Editor
program in May 2011.
Terran is a resident of a village west of Borneo in the Kalimatan province, where he works as a field supervisor for one of the largest palm oil companies in Indonesia. Although the industry has supplied his village with much-needed employment and economic development, he worries that the influx of jobs has come at the expense of the health of the forests, agriculture, and clean rivers that sustain his village. “It’s not just about the money,” he says. “Will they sincerely keep the regulations and be fair to our community?”
An Industry with a Checkered Past
Terran’s skepticism of the industry is justified – palm companies, such as Sinar Mas, have a nasty track record of “abusing local labor and pilfering forests” for what they call “liquid gold,” says Templin.
Greenpeace released a report, “How Sinar Mas is Pulping the Planet,” in 2010 that alleged that Sinar Mas cut down important wildlife preserves, illegally planted on peat lands, and that these actions resulted in the release of considerable amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and loss of critical wildlife habitat.
As a result, the company lost major contracts with Unilever, Kraft, and Nestle. Sinar Mas CEO Franky Widjaya tells Templin that the company is taking definitive steps to prevent such instances from happening again, but that change will not happen overnight.
Akhir bin Man, a manager for another palm oil company, PT Kal, says he does not want to experience a public relations nightmare similar to Sinar Mas, so his company is seeking certification from the internationally recognized Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO certification requires PT Kal to conserve nearly half of its land, use safer pesticides, and negotiate profit-sharing agreements with villagers.
“These are not only vast forest landscapes which are home to species such as orangutans, elephants, and rhinos, but they’re also some of the globally most important reservoirs of carbon,” Adam Tomasek, director of the WWF Heart of Borneo Initiative, tells Templin.
Due to the wide-scale implications of disrupting such a substantial carbon sink, Tomasek and his colleagues see the destruction of these habitats as not just a local problem: “Sustainably managing the forest and carbon stocks that they contain here in Indonesia is not only important locally, not only important regionally, but an extremely important critical in the global approach to dealing with climate change,” he says.
Resisting the Juggernaut
Recognizing the inherent value of their natural resources, some villages are fighting to keep palm companies off of their land. Pak Bastarian is the head of such a village: “In my opinion, [palm] plantations are only owned by certain groups of people, and they don’t necessarily bring prosperity,” he tells Templin.
Bastarian is a reformed environmentalist whose hesitance toward the palm industry is a by-product of his own experiences – in the 1990s he worked for years running a timber company that illegally cut down trees. “I don’t know how many trees I cut down…a countless number.” Now, he uses his elected power to preserve trees like the ones he once cut down.
However, keeping the companies out of his village is an uphill battle, Templin explains. Bastarian says he faces mounting pressure from governmental officials, who make threats, and many villagers, who would rather have the jobs. He tells Templin that he even received bribes from PT Kal (an accusation they deny).
Bastarian’s position may cost him though – with elections right around the corner, he said does not know how much longer he can keep the palm companies out.
“My worry is that if our forests are cleared, our children will not be able to see what protected wood looks like, or what protected animals look like,” he tells Templin. When the palm oil companies first came, he chose to wait and see how the other villages fared before allowing them to come in. “To this day,” he says, “I’ve never changed my mind.”
Video Credit: “Indonesia’s Palm Oil Dilemma: To Cash In or Fight for the Forests?,” courtesy of the International Reporting Project.