Biofuel, Food, Deforestration, and Indonesian Palm

By Ryan Campbell

Biofuel are fuels that are derived from organic material from living or recently deceased plants or animals. It was supposed to be the green dream—it would allow us to significantly reduce our emissions with minimal lifestyle changes. These views were quickly altered, however, as the practice of growing crops for biofuel quickly proved to increase our carbon footprint, put stress on food supplies, pollute our environment, decrease biodiversity, and increase large-scale deforestation, amongst other harms. There are several ways to harvest biomass for biofuel that can minimize the destructive potential in the environment such as from waste biomass or from biomass grown on degraded and abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials.[1] Sources such as Indonesia’s palm oil, however, have led to human and environmental rights abuses while defeating the original purpose of switching to biofuel, which is to lower carbon emissions.

The European Parliament has passed energy directives to require European Union (EU) member states to reach 10% renewable energy by 2020, with biofuels as a qualifying source, thus becoming a major incentive to expand biofuel plantations. Environmentalists are concerned that this will lead to Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC). ILUC includes indirect environmental harms such as biofuels pushing out food crops, which then requires the production of replacement food (if it is indeed possible) and in turn increases carbon emissions, and is the subject of a report published by the European Commission to the European Parliament last December.[2] Since the passage of these directives, the EU has passed new requirements for biofuel amidst environmental and human rights groups’ claims that additional biofuel could accelerate climate change as well as deprive the poor of food.[3] To address some of these concerns, the EU now requires that biofuel must save at least 35% of greenhouse gasses compared with oil and cannot come from recently cleared land.[4] Two key palm producers, Malaysia and Indonesia, have been balking at new environmental regulations the EU is attempting to enforce, claiming that they are discriminatory and threatening to take their case to the World Trade Organization.[5] Although hotly contested, these regulations are only a few of many steps that need to be taken to address the environmental and social realities of biofuel plantations.

On the issue of food security, which is the availability of food and one’s access to it, author and journalist Michael Grunwald has made a direct connection to biofuel crops: “by diverting grain and oilseed crops from dinner plates to fuel tanks, biofuels are jacking up world food prices and endangering the hungry. The grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year.”[6] He observes that, “The U.N.’s World Food Program . . . [called] the rising costs for food nothing less than a global emergency.”[7] Biofuels hit the stage when changing climate trends have already taken a serious toll on food supplies. For example, droughts in Russia severely harmed their 2010 cereal yields.[8] When Russia imposed an export ban on cereal in August, international cereal prices spiked.[9] In response to the drought in Russia knocking out wheat crops, Alwyn Hughes, chief executive and owner of Ensus, one of the largest biorefineries in England, said, “We are planning at this stage to get all our [wheat] requirements from the UK but the position is tighter this year.”[10] This will leave the poor contending with Ensus’ biorefinery for whatever is left of the wheat harvest this year, or to try to move on to other food, putting pressure on another source, and exacerbating the already dire problem of global food shortages.

Indonesia, a key producer of palm oil for biofuel, currently has a significant deforestation problem: land use change (i.e. burning forests to clear for plantations) counts for 80% of carbon emissions from Indonesia.[11] Converting rainforests to produce food crop-based biofuels, such as biofuels derived from palm fruit, can create a biofuel carbon debt by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels.[12] Indigenous and farming-and-gathering communities on the frontier (groups who are often politically powerless and know little about their legal rights) are dependent upon these forests, which are being destroyed. Indonesia has lost roughly half of its forest since 1967, and the palm oil industry is the main driver of deforestation.[13] The industry has been accused of using highly carcinogenic herbicides (banned in both Europe and the United States), human rights violations, and burning forests as a cheap method of clearing land for palm oil plantations.[14] This loss of habitat will likely lead to the extinction of the Asian elephant, the Sumatran tiger, and the orangutan of Borneo, with plantation owners going so far as to pay 150,000 rupiah (about $17 as of March 2011) for the right hand of an orangutan—used to prove a kill—because orangutans eat young palm fruit.[15]

The palm oil industry in Indonesia has also often abused local indigenous populations. To produce crude palm oil, the palm harvest must get to a crude palm oil mill within 24 hours, while it is still fresh, which requires at least 4,000 hectares of land, though more commonly 10,000 to 40,000, to achieve a profit.[16] The palm oil industry has bribed or used local community leaders as agents to acquire large parcels of land while ordinary local residents have rarely been involved, which is often contrary to their right to communal land.[17] In areas where local farmers and indigenous groups have demanded more equitable distribution of benefits, they have often been violently suppressed by military personnel, as well as regional police and even gangs, recruited by palm oil companies to work as security.[18] Recently, the Center for Democracy and Human Rights Studies, the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, and 22 other NGOs presented reports and claims that the development of plantations resulted in conflicts between the companies and the locals.[19] The National Commission for Human Rights, an organization that promotes and monitors human rights in Indonesia, said that 30% of the 5,000 complaints filed with it were related to land conflicts between companies and people living nearby.[20] The NGOs also reported that 12 of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil members, a self-described “international organization of producers, distributors, conservationists and other stakeholders” of palm oil, were involved in conflicts centered on the legal status of land and workers’ rights.[21] The reports went on to detail human rights violations, land snatching practices, and practices bordering on slavery in the treatment of workers, including children.[22]

Fraud runs rampant in this already flawed system of granting concessions for palm development in Indonesia. Often, when a company is given a concession on the land to plant palm trees, the company will clear trees instead of planting. On this subject, Willie Smits, creator of SarVision (satellite mapping service that charts the rainforest’s decline), weighed in, “When you look closely at the areas where companies are getting permission for oil palm [23] plantation are those of high-conservation forest . . . What they’re really doing is stealing the timber because they get to clear it before they plant. But the timber’s all they want; hit and run with no intention of ever planting.”[24]

Palm oil development has been a loss for human rights, indigenous rights, and created a variety of environmental problems aside from generating more carbon than the biofuels would displace. The rush for biofuel as a potential solution to climate change has placed pressure on the development of resources, such as palm oil, in rainforests that are sparsely populated with small communities of people, some of whom have lived in the rainforest all their lives with little or no contact with the outside world. Large companies that steal large tracts of land from these communities to produce palm oil are often met with little resistance. This all takes place on the vast frontier, where even earnest attempts at law enforcement are difficult, if not impossible. In short, while biofuels may have had some promise, the way in which they have been pursued has not been an environmental solution, but, rather, an environmental and social problem.

1 Joseph Fargione, Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt, SCIENCE MAGAZINE (Feb. 29, 2008),

2 Robert Edwards et al., Indirect Land Use Change from Increased Biofuels Demand: Comparison of Models and Results for Marginal Biofuels Production from Different Feedstocks, EUROPEAN COMMISSION, JOINT RESEARCH CENTRE, INSTITUTE FOR ENERGY, 6–12 (2010), See also Virginia H. Dale et al., Biofuels: Implications for Land Use and Biodiversity, ECOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA, 1–4 (Jan. 2010),

3 EU Biofuels Growth on Hold as Green Benefits Queried, REUTERS (William Hardy ed., Nov. 10, 2010),

4 Pete Harrison, Malaysia, Indonesia Warn EU Hampers Palm Oil Trade, REUTERS (Jane Baird ed., Nov. 16, 2010),

5 Id.

6 Michael Grunwald, The Clean Energy Scam, TIME, Mar. 27, 2008,,9171,1725975,00.html.

7 Id.

8 Janet Raloff, Food Security Wanes as World Warms, US NEWS AND WORLD REPORT, Dec. 2, 2010,

9 Id.

10 EU Biofuels, supra note 3.

11 Jessica Leber, Indonesia Walks a ‘Tricky’ Path Toward Growth and Sustainability, N.Y. TIMES, Mar. 22, 2010,

12 Fargione, supra note 1, at 1235.

13 Fidelis E. Satriastanti, Indonesian Greens Push Plantation Moratorium, THE JAKARTA GLOBE, Apr. 6, 2010,

14 Id.; LOST IN PALM OIL (Journeyman Pictures 2007).

15 Ian MacKinnon, Palm Oil: The Biofuel of the Future Driving an Ecological Disaster Now, THE GUARDIAN, Apr. 4, 2007,

16 Narihisa Nakashima, Oil Palm Development and Violence: A Case Study of Communal Land Struggle in Kapar, West
Sumatra, Indonesia, HOSEI UNIVERSITY REPOSITORY, 1 (2010),

17 Id.

18 Id.

19 Human Rights Violations Top List of Issues. THE JAKARTA POST, Nov. 12, 2010,

20 Id.

21 Id.CUNY ILS Digest Page 19

22 Id.

23 “Oil palm” and “palm oil” are used interchangeably in the industry.

24 MacKinnon, supra note 15.