Indonesia’s palm-oil plantations are turning villagers into poachers

The rampant destruction of rainforest by the Indonesian palm-oil industry is leaving villagers with few options but to poach species like the Helmeted Hornbill to extinction, says Jocelyn Zuckerman in FERN’s latest story, published with Audubon Magazine.

“Indonesia is ground zero for palm oil, a substance that, unbeknownst to most Americans, has quietly invaded our lives,” Zuckerman writes. “Now present in half of all products on U.S. grocery store shelves—from crackers and ice creams to lotions and lipsticks—the cheap, versatile commodity also is on a precipitous rise in India, China, and beyond.”

In Indonesia—and in all palm-oil growing countries—the onslaught of plantations has devastated local bird populations. “Here on Sumatra, more than 75 percent of the 102 lowland-forest-dependent bird species are now considered globally threatened. And BirdLife International reports that 27 of the island’s 34 Important Bird Areas contain major tracts of just the sort of lowland forest prized by the industry,” says Zuckerman. Not only does deforestation destroy the birds’ habitat, but as the survivors are forced into smaller wooded areas, poachers have an easier time finding them.

The poachers themselves, though, are often victims of palm oil, too. Historically, Indonesians ate what they could forage and hunt in the forest, and built their homes with plant materials. But now villagers with little formal education and few job prospects must buy things they used to get from the land.

Sold for five times as much as elephant ivory ($6,000 a kilogram), the beak of Helmeted Hornbills is carved into elaborate snuff and jewelry boxes and sold in Asia. A single bird can make a poacher enough to feed three families for a month, which is why in just three years, from 2012 to 2015, the Helmeted Hornbill has fallen from “near threatened” to “critically endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

Apart from the bird, the destruction of Indonesia’s forests has global climate implications. Indonesian forests represent one of the planet’s largest carbon sinks, but the country also holds one of earth’s biggest spreads of peatland. “Scientists have said that in order to limit warming to 2°C, the world can emit no more than 600 billion tons of greenhouse gases between now and 2050,” writes Zuckerman. “Indonesia’s peatland carbon alone, if released as CO² in the atmosphere, equals one-third of that remaining budget.” Because of deforestation and the destruction of Indonesia’s massive peatlands (both caused by palm-oil production), Indonesia ranks fifth in the world for greenhouse gas emissions.

The Indonesian government declared a moratorium on new permits for the construction of palm-oil plantations in April, 2015, citing rainforest destruction. But plantations still crop up illegally, and it’s uncertain how long the moratorium will last.

You can also find Zuckerman’s story here on FERN’s website.