As a child, Matt Aman grew up in the lush tropical lowland rain forest of Sumatra. Tigers padded through the underbrush, rarely seen and silent as shadows. “It made my skin prickle,” the indigenous leader recalled recently as he sat on the floor of a stick hut surrounded by fellow villagers.
“When I was young, it was easy to find the mouse deer, monitor lizard, and wild pigs,” Aman said.
The birds were majestic, too, he said, as he nodded and lit a cigarette. They filled the forest with a chorus of coos and trills that woke the Kubu village every morning. “We never hear those birds anymore,” Aman said.
It is easy to see why. The storybook forest of his youth, the great green riot of reeds and vines, the cathedral-like thickets of fruit and hardwood trees - all of it is gone. In its place, for mile after monotonous mile, is a rolling carpet of palm trees, not the kind that sway in the wind at Waikiki, but a shorter, pudgier variety - the oil palm - that like corn and soybeans is rapidly becoming one of the world’s major sources of biofuel.
Not long ago, biofuels were billed as a green dream come true, a way to burn less fossil fuel and shrink our carbon footprint. But today, mounting evidence indicates that producing biofuels - particularly those derived from food crops such as corn and oil palm - may be doing considerably more harm to the planet than good, actually increasing greenhouse gas emissions and driving up food prices worldwide.
Some of the most devastating costs of the biofuel revolution are on display in Indonesia, where massive clearing of tropical forests for oil palm plantations has caused staggering environmental damage and tremendous loss of biodiversity. Only the Amazon and Africa’s Congo basin harbour more tropical forests than Indonesia, but the reality today is that all three regions are seeing their rain forests disappear at an alarming rate. And in the Amazon and Indonesia, growing world demand for food and biofuel is now driving much of the damage.
A flurry of scientific field work and environmental reports have linked the spread of oil palm plantations in Indonesia to the decimation of rain forests, increased conflict between logging and oil palm interests and rural and indigenous people, and massive CO2 emissions through logging, burning, and the draining of carbon-rich peat lands. And most of the trouble, as I learned on a recent visit, is playing out in the Indonesian lowland rain forests on Sumatra and Borneo, an ecosystem long regarded as a global hotspot for rare and endemic species - but perhaps not for much longer.
Over the past three years, researchers with the Zoological Society of London have searched exhaustively for tigers, clouded leopards, and other rare mammals on oil palm plantations in Sumatra. They have turned up next to nothing. "Most endangered species were never detected,” they wrote in a report last year. Initially, they found hope along the edges of plantations where, against all odds, some tigers - which have roamed the rain forest for millennia - managed to survive. But even as their studies were underway, much of that land was also cleared, often illegally by settlers.
“If developed responsibly, oil palm should be able to provide economic growth and development without turning some of the earth’s most important tropical ecosystems into ecological deserts,” the researchers noted in the report. But they added: “This is a big ‘if’. Achieving responsible development is a major challenge.”
Roughly the size of California, Sumatra is the sixth largest island in the world. But it is home to fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers, down from around 1,000 in the 1980s. Historical population figures are sketchy. But the big cat is believed to have lost 80 per cent of its natural habitat over the past century, reducing the tigers to scattered groups in increasingly beleaguered forest oases.
“The tiger is going to go extinct if we don’t do something,” a wildlife biologist named Sunarto told me in Pekanbaru, the steamy capital of Sumatra’s Riau province, a centre of oil palm planting.
For his part, Sunarto is working to persuade oil palm managers to leave strategic corridors of forest around plantations untouched so the endangered big cats do not become genetically isolated. But it’s a struggle.