EU — The EU is fuelling widespread human rights abuses on palm oil plantations across Indonesia via its support for biofuels, a coalition of indigenous advocacy, human rights and environmental groups say.
Palm oil companies often use violent tactics to grab land from indigenous communities in the country, according to a report from Sawit Watch, an Indonesian human rights NGO; Life Mosaic, a UK-based indigenous advocacy group; and Friends of the Earth Europe.
The groups say that growing western demand for biofuels, and EU targets to increase the use of biofuels in transport in particular, are causing these violations.
When communities protest the loss of their lands, private security firms and Indonesian police that collude with the companies crack down on native peoples, says the report, Losing Ground. They depend on these lands for food, medicines and building materials lands that are now rapidly being turned into palm oil plantations.
“This all used to be the community’s land!” the report quotes one community leader from Sumatra, “It was all seized [by the company]. It was defending this land that two of our men got killed. They were kidnapped and killed.”
The communities also say that local rivers have far less water than before the plantations were established.
At the same time, recurrent flooding in the rainy season has been a problem in the palm oil regions, as plantations affect natural drainage patterns.
Abetnego Tarigan, Deputy Director of Sawit Watch said: “Oil palm companies have already taken over 7.3 million hectares of land for plantations, resulting in 513 ongoing conflicts between companies and communities.”
And Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of crude palm oil is now planning to expand plantation areas by a further 20 million hectares an area the size of England, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined, says the report.
The native groups complain that they are tricked by companies who promise communities schools, irrigation projects and new roads that never materialise, or bribe chiefs with money or holidays.
The report also describes how palm oil mills are polluting water on which the communities also depend by discharging effluent into open water courses.
EU biofuel targets responsible As part of its strategy to tackle climate change, the European Union has set targets for ten per cent of all transport fuel to come from biofuels by 2020.
The groups are demanding the EU immediately ban all imports of palm oil for biofuels and energy until safeguards are introduced, and adopt legally binding restrictions on investment and subsidies for palm-oil-based fuels.
They also want the EU to abandon its ten percent biofuels for transport target.
“Fuels from palm oil are a disaster for people, said Adrian Bebb, Friends of the Earth Europe agrofuels campaigner.
Serge Marti from Life Mosaic, the author of the report, said: Europe we must realise that encouraging large fuel companies to grab community land across the developing world is no solution to climate change.
‘Renewables can’t solve all the world’s problems’ Responding to the report, the commission’s energy spokesperson, Ferran Tarradellas Espuny, said that human rights issues are addressed by various other different EU policies, but energy policy is not where the problem of human rights is dealt with.
“The renewables directive cannot solve all the problems of the world. We are trying to use biofuels in a way that the environmental benefits are higher than otherwise,” he said.
Nonetheless, he opened the door to consideration of the issue, adding at the same time, “If there is any issue that makes reference to human rights, including the production of biofuels, then certainly it is something the commission is always very willing to hear about.”
But he pointed out that traditional fossil fuel come with their own social concerns: “We should not forget that the alternative to biofuels is oil, and we could say a lot of things about human rights and oil.”
Representatives of the biodiesel industry pointed out that most European palm oil imports goes into food products, not biofuels.
“In Europe in 2000, 2 million tonnes of palm oil were imported. Last year, some 5 million tonnes were imported, but of this, less than three per cent went into biodiesel,” Raffaello Garofalo, the secretary general of the European Biodiesel Board told EUobserver.
“We have to stop the demonisation of biofuels,” he added.
“Human rights is the responsibility of the United Nations, not biofuels, but we’re not opposed to human rights certification alongside environmental sustainability criteria.”
One commission official echoed the industry comments: “I don’t know why they’re bothering about this palm oil represents almost nothing of European biofuel production. It’s mostly used for margarine.
“Why don’t these groups look at all the jobs biofuels are creating in places like Brazil?” the official asked.
Friends of the Earth, however, responds that the indirect results of growing demand for biofuels is as much to blame for the human rights violations as the demand itself.
“Europe’s food industry used to use a lot of rapeseed oil in their products, but they’ve had to switch over to palm oil, as rapeseed oil is being swallowed up by the European biodiesel industry,” said Adrian Webb.
Indonesian biofuels creating 3.5 million jobs The Indonesian government denies that the human rights abuses are occurring. The agricultural attaché of Indonesia’s mission to the European Union, Edy Hartulistiyoso, told EUobserver: “All of [the special biofuel zones] are lands that are considered barren for agricultural purposes.
“Protected rain forests are strictly forbidden by law to be used,” he added.
Mr Hartulistiyoso pointed out that his country’s biofuels strategy is committed to implementing the sustainable development recommendations of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil Programme (RSPO), and aims to create jobs for 3.5 million people, and that provincial governments are ensuring the participation of local communities.
The report comes at a time when environmentalists and the commission’s own scientists are saying that biofuels may actually result in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions, rather than a reduction.
In Indonesia, for example, the Losing Ground report also notes, fires used to clear the land and peat bogs for palm oil are drained, releasing hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, making Indonesia the third highest contributor of CO2 emissions in the world.
Thus when the commission announced its biofuels target for transport, to assuage environmental concerns, it proposed environmental sustainability criteria for the controversial energy source.
At the time of the announcement, however, social criteria for biofuel sources were ruled out.