Major Palm Oil Company Announces Plan for Forest Protection

February 14, 2011- Nick Engelfried

The future has grown a little brighter for imperiled rainforest species like the orangutan, tiger, and Sumatran rhinoceros.  In a potentially huge step forward for forest conservation in Indonesia, the palm oil company Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) has announced a plan to halt deforestation in large areas of forestland.  A new policy laid out by GAR last week states the company will no longer clear forests in places of especially high conservation value, such as areas that serve as important carbon sinks or strongholds of biodiversity. 

“This could be good news for the forests, endangered species like the orangutan and for the Indonesian economy,” said Bustar Maitar, head of the Greenpeace campaign to protect the rainforests of Indonesia. 

Greenpeace and other international environmental groups have spent the last few years pressuring companies to withdraw support for activities that add to deforestation in Indonesia.  The country is currently experiencing some of the fastest deforestation anywhere in the world, which is adding to climate change and threatening the remaining habitat for hundreds of endangered species.  Most famously the orangutan, the only great ape found in Asia, is predicted to face extinction in the next several years if current deforestation rates continue. 

Yet the news isn’t all bad: in response to public concerns about the fate of Indonesia’s forests, more and more companies have been refusing to do business that contributes to causes of deforestation.  Responding to pressure from Greenpeace and other nonprofits, corporations like Nestle, Unilever, Burger King, and more have promised to stop purchasing palm oil and wood pulp sourced from endangered Indonesian forests.  This has often meant ceasing to do business with Sinar Mas, an Indonesia-based conglomerate that produces palm oil and wood and paper products, and which has been responsible for a significant fraction of Indonesian deforestation.

Golden Agri-Resources is the palm oil branch of Sinar Mas, and last week’s announcement is the biggest sign so far that Sinar Mas companies are seeing rainforest destruction as harmful to their public relations.  A statement from GAR says it is committed to developing “a fully sustainable palm oil industry which will be part of a growing Indonesian economy.”  If GAR can follow through on this pledge, it may again be able to do business with international companies that are shunning it for now.

Though encouraged by GAR’s new forest policy, environmental groups are watching closely to see how implementation plays out.  They are also pressuring the Indonesian government to work with companies like GAR to end deforestation altogether.  Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has promised to place a moratorium on deforestation, but questions remain about how well if at all it will be enforced.  GAR’s forest policy is presents an opportunity for the government and the private sector to collaborate on protecting rainforests.

“Golden Agri’s announcement today has given a huge boost to the Indonesian President’s pledge to protect forests and tackle climate change,” said Greenpeace’s Bustar Maitar.  “Now the Indonesian Government must support this initiative by stopping any more licenses being granted for forest and peatland clearance, and by reviewing activities in areas where licenses have already been handed out.”

Laying out a forest policy on paper is just the first step for GAR when it comes to truly transforming palm oil production in Indonesia.  Meanwhile other forest challenges remain: for example, the pulp and paper arms of Sinar Mas have yet to commit to a policy comparable to GAR’s.  However for now environmentalists around the world are celebrating what seems to be a major victory.  GAR’s announcement on forest protection just might signal the beginning of an industry-wide shift toward forest conservation and protection of critically endangered species like orangutans. 

Photo credit: Daniel Kleeman

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