Indonesia — Marto Wijoyo and his family left the overcrowded Indonesian island of Java 27 years ago in search of a better life on neighbouring Sumatra. The government had given Wijoyo, now 60, a tract of fertile land to plant with rice and a home to call his own as part of a plan to ease Java’s population pressures.
Soon, he was producing twice-yearly harvests of more than ten tonnes of rice. Life was easy then, he said.
All that changed four years ago when his neighbours in this lush village in Sumatra’s Riau province decided to join the palm oil craze that has turned Indonesia into the world’s biggest producer.
Farmers across the region have switched from food crops to oil palm, lured by rising prices as the demand for the clean-burning biofuels it is largely used to make has risen.
Last year, around 2.1 million hectares of land in Riau was taken up by oil palm plantations, compared with only around 400,000 hectares a decade ago. But despite its green credentials, the crop is taking a major toll on the environment, driving forest clearing, polluting rivers and introducing more pests.
Wijoyo, who resisted joining the rush, said his crop has halved since oil palm plantations began springing up in nearby fields, providing a dry haven for pests to nest away from the damp rise paddies.
“Ever since they planted oil palm the number of birds, rats, snails has increased, and they are destroying our rice crops,” he said.
Large swathes of Sumatra’s forest have been destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations, with companies clearing the trees and burning the stumps that remain.
Greenpeace activist Zulfahmi said the fires can smoulder underneath the dry peat for months, producing clouds of acrid smoke that spread far and wide.
“The demand for palm oil has driven the clearing of more and more peatland forests. What we see here is one of the last remaining forests in Riau,” he said, waving at forested peatlands in the process of being cleared.
“Peat thickness in Riau in some areas can reach more than ten metres. To prepare a peatland forest for plantation, a company will clear all the timber out, then stack the remaining stumps and burn them.”
The large amount of fertilizer required for oil palm cultivation is also threatening local rivers — and the livelihoods of the fishermen that depend on them.
Bujang Sok, 65, showed AFP his meagre catch of less than two kilogrammes (five pounds) of fish from the Cenaku river. A decade ago, he said, he was catching 10 times as much.
“How can we catch any fish? The water is polluted by the palm oil companies’ fertilizers and the peat water,” he said as he pointed at the murky river.
Kuala Cenaku chief Mursyid Ali fondly remembers the days when his village was known all over the country as one of Indonesia’s biggest rice producers. He accused people of blindly following the palm oil craze and worried that the irrigation system in place for growing rice would be left to rot.
“In five years I am sure there will be fewer and fewer people planting rice,” he said. “Unfortunately, the agriculture office cannot force people to plant rice. People can plant whatever they want.”