In Indonesia the last wild forests are being clear-cut and replaced with oil palm plantations. Although the product is practically indispensible, green groups say virgin land needn't be cleared for it. With deforestation rampant, the rich bio-diversity that once existed verges on collapse. The deforestation ravaging the landscape is driven by humanity's ravenous appetite for palm oil.
"West Papua and the nearby islands of North Maluku are Indonesia's final frontier," said Deborah Lapidus, a campaigner with Mighty Earth, a new global environmental group. "Most of Indonesia's other islands, like Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra, have already been largely deforested. But on West Papua, 80 percent of the natural forest is still intact."
For native Papuan tribes, including some as-yet uncontacted groups, the forests are their ancient homelands. But for the loggers and oil palm plantation corporations, these territories are the commercial frontier, where land not yet "in production" is up for grabs. More than 27.6 million hectares of a total of 34.6 million hectares of forest in West Papua have been designated as "production forest" - that is, slated for logging or conversion to palm oil plantations.
A Korean-Indonesian conglomerate called Korindo is now the leading driver of deforestation on the Indonesia-administered western half of Papua. Korindo has cleared more than 50,000 hectares of tropical lowland forest in Papua and North Maluku to make way for palm oil plantations - often through illegal burning - and it is aggressively expanding operations. Since 2013 alone, Korindo has cleared 30,000 hectares, 12,000 hectares of which were primary forest. Another 75,000 hectares of untouched forest remain at imminent risk of destruction in Korindo's palm oil concessions.
"Korindo is heralding a gold-rush-type land grab in the area of Indonesia with the largest intact rainforest landscapes," Lapidus said, "and bringing an outdated and destructive model of large-scale bulldoze-and-burn commodity agriculture to one of the most remote, highly forested and biodiverse areas left on Earth."
Palm oil is an extraordinarily useful commodity tapped for the making of everything from pizza and candy bars to cosmetics, toothpaste and biodiesel fuel. Global production of palm oil has doubled over the last decade - partly due to European biofuel mandates - and is expected to double again by 2050.
Mighty Earth and other green groups want palm oil to be produced exclusively from lands that have already been deforested - of which there are millions of hectares available - and not from fresh conversion of as-yet pristine forests. It is important to stop global demand for palm oil from rising inexorably, because rising demand is a key driver of ongoing tropical deforestation. Experts suggest ending legislated mandates for biofuels and driving down the price of algal oil, the only palm-oil substitute that requires much less land per ton of production than oil palm plantations.