Oleh: Zefanya Zeske, BW’17

We all live in a unique planet called Earth. The Earth is the third closest planet to the Sun after Mercury and Venus. Having its own water on the surface, plate tectonic, and atmospheres that could shelter from the worst of the sun rays makes the Earth becoming the only planet that’s possible to be lived in. The Earth provides us such a ‘complete package’ since it has both water and land on its surface. The Earth’s surface is covered by 70.8% water, and 29.2% land. Almost half of the land is covered by forests. Forests cover just over 4 billion hectares of the land’s surface. It’s quite huge! Actually, there are several types of forests, such as tropical rainforest, temperate deciduous forest, temperate coniferous forest, and boreal (taiga) forest. Each one of them has their own kinds of characteristic such as location, climate, soil, plants, animals, or even threats. For example, tropical rainforest has temperature between 68-77 degrees Fahrenheit all year, receive 100 inches of rain per year and no winter there, meanwhile at the boreal forest, or we usually call it taiga,  it precisely has long winters and receive only between 15-40 inches rain per year. However, the tropical rainforest has the most biodiversity among the other forests. It’s because the tropical rainforest has wet and warm climate, and the plants & animals have more chance to get the greatest access to energy, water, and carbon. It’s estimated that up to 75% of all biotic species are natively from the tropical rainforests and it makes the tropical rainforests becoming a home to half of the living animal & plant species on Earth. A single hectare of rainforest may contain 42,000 different species of insects, up to 807 trees of 313 species and 1,500 species of higher plants. And what’s more fascinating is that there may be millions of species of plants, animals, and microorganisms still undiscovered in tropical rainforest!

One of country that has the largest tropical rainforest region is Indonesia. Indonesia is in the third position of having the largest rainforest region in the world after Brazil and Democratic Republic of The Congo. It is about 109 million hectares. Indonesia’s rainforest contains approximately 38,000 kinds of plant, 515 kinds of mammal (and it’s the most around the world!), 511 kinds of reptile, and around 1,531 kinds of bird. Most of them are only available in Indonesia, and are not available elsewhere (endemic). Basically the rainforests have the same function as the other kinds of forest, such as maintain the water function, absorb the carbon dioxide from the air, and becoming the source of water for the human, animals, and plants. Nevertheless, in fact that the rainforest has even more function than that. Having a massive biodiversity makes the tropical rainforest is beneficial for some industries, such as pharmaceutical industry, and craft industry. For a long time, Indonesia is best known for being the origin of various floras. For example, Dipterocarpaceae is a tree family that’s mostly exist in Indonesian rainforests which is nowadays having the highest commercial meaning as mainly the wood export industries come from this kind of tree. Trees that come from this family grow a lot in tropical rainforest outside Java.

Back when it was still the ‘Hindu Period’ (around the fourth century) in Indonesia, forest held a very important role for the social and economic life as people were still primitive and embrace animism at that time. Hindu people believe that teak (Tectona grandis) is a tree that personifies the material of origin from the soul, and especially as the incarnation of the ancestral soul. They believe that after death, their souls will go to the teak tree and reside. Therefore when they went to a place where there were no teak trees there, they had to plant it by themselves. And so when the Hindu priests came to Indonesia, they brought the teak trees and planted it which would later become a teak forest. On Islamic Period, forests still held an important role for the community. The woods taken from the forest, teak forest exactly, were usually used to build mosques for praying and to fulfil the community’s daily needs. As time goes by, after the Islamic Period took place, the population growth started to increase. Along with the increasing number of population growth, the forest region began to decrease because it turned into residential areas, paddy fields, and plantation area such as the oil palm plantation.

Palm oil, originally from western Africa, is a major producer of vegetable oil that is derived from the mesocarp of the fruit of the oil palms (Elaeis guineensis) and has higher productivity than the other vegetable oils. Palm oil is the most common cooking ingredient in the tropical countries, such as in Africa, Southeast Asia, and parts of Brazil. What’s good about palm oil is it contains very little cholesterol, has lower cost, and has a high stability when used for frying.

Oil palm was first introduced in Indonesia by the Dutch government in 1848. At that time, there were 4 seeds of oil palm grown in Bogor Botanical Garden, two from Bourbon and two others Hortus Botanicus, Amsterdam. Initially oil palm trees were cultivated as ornamental plants, while the crops cultivation for commercial purposes began in 1911. The pioneer of oil palm plantation in Indonesia was a Belgian, Adrien Hallet. The first oil palm plantation was in east coast of Sumatera and Aceh. At that time, the oil palm plantations grew rapidly, even beyond the African countries dominance at export activities. By 1940, Indonesia has successfully exported 250,000 tons of palm oil under the colonial government.

On 1957, when the colonialism was over, Indonesian government took over the plantations. During the Orde Baru (1966 – 1998), the plantation development was directed in order to create more employment opportunities, improve the welfare of society and also to increase the country’s foreign exchange. The government continued to keep opening new land for the plantations. By 1980, the land area has reached 194,500 hectares, and the CPO (Crude Palm Oil) reached 721,172 tons. Since then, due to a big opportunity as the world’s demand of vegetable oil began to increase, the government determined to make Indonesia becoming the biggest palm oil producer in the world. By that, the palm oil plantation area continued to grow rapidly as well. On 2006, there were still 6.5 million hectares oil palm plantation in Indonesia, and suddenly it become 16.1 million by 2017. And nowadays, Indonesia contributes a half of the world’s palm oil production.

Year by year, the oil palm plantations are getting wider and wider. One of the ways to expand/open the oil palm plantation is by converting the rainforest to be the oil palm plantation itself which is done by burning the trees down. This kind of method has always been a controversy.  The controversy of the oil palm plantation expansion reaps the pros and cons from various groups, both from the local community as well as the traditional leaders who consider forest as an ancestral heritage that must be maintained, because most of people, especially those who live in the depth of the forest, are still very dependent on the forest.

There are six provinces in Indonesia with the largest oil palm plantation area; Riau, North Sumatera, South Sumatera, Centre of Borneo, West Borneo, and Papua. The bad news is that the largest Indonesian rainforests are mostly located in those six provinces, so when the forest clearing for oil palm plantation happens to those areas, it will harm the biodiversity of the rainforest itself. For example, on 2000, the rainforest area in Sumatera was still 15.3 million hectares, but on 2017 it was only 11.4 million hectares remaining. The Sumatera rainforest used to be a home for 201 mammal species, 580 birds, which 15 among them are the endemic animals. Around more than 45% of the Sumatera primary rainforest has lost since 1985 (we can imagine how much species has lost!) and now so many remaining species are threatened with extinction because of the land clearing (deforestation), especially for the oil palm plantation.

Figure 1. An orangutan died because of  a burning forest

In Borneo itself, the deforestation rate has reached about 1.23 million hectares for the last five years, it means that around 673 hectares of Borneo rainforest is deforested per day! The Borneo 25.5 million hectares now. Similar with the others, Papua rainforests are in danger too. Papua had 42.22 million hectares of rainforest at the first time, but slowly as the deforestation rate keeps increasing, it is only left around 30.1 hectares now. We all know that Papua has some popular endemic plants and animals, such as tropical pitcher plant (Nepenthes), cendrawasih (Paradisaeidae) and cassowary (Casuarius), that are facing extinction and if deforestation keeps on going, those endemic animals and plants will extinct as well. How miserable is it. There will be only one kind of tree, the oil palm, since the oil palm plantation uses monoculture method, and remove the biodiversity as I’ve mentioned before. In my opinion, the biodiversity loss means that we also lost our country’s identity, considering that there are many endemic plants and animals.

The forest clearing in term of expanding the oil palm plantations will also lead into another imbalance among the ecosystem, also between human & the animals. Why? As the rainforest are getting burnt down due to oil palm plantation expansion, that means at the same time the animals’ natural habitat also decreased. Logically, if their habitat is no longer available, there will be no food supply either and this will cause the animals to go along the villagers’ houses to search some food, the scared villagers tend to attack the animals and get into a conflict which will lead into animal abuse and often ends with the animals’ death. This always happen everytime. The more animals are getting abused & killed, the more chance to extinct they will face. Once they extinct, it will disturb the natural food chain. If this happen, then the ecosystem will be imbalance, even it could lead into a massive extinction!

Besides decreasing the rainforest’s biodiversity, the improper forest clearing, by burning it down, will lead into soil erosion. In addition, the fertilizing activities, product hauling, and soil tillage have cumulatively reduced the quality the soil, because physically, due to the activities, the soil texture later will become hard and unable to absorb & store water. The oil palm plantations will also increase the soil pH, as the soil was acidic at the first time then it became neutral. This phenomenon will affect the microorganism’s activities that become very slow so the nitrogen amount in the soil will be very low.

The oil palm plantations use the monoculture concept. It unfortunately will make the soil become infertile and the erosion will only get any worse. Oil palm is a voracious plant that it requires 20-30 liters of water everyday. The low water amount in the soil will cause the farmers no longer able to grow agricultural crops perfectly after the oil palm plantations operate. Oil palm also consumes a lot of nutrient, so it needs to be fertilized often. The excessive use of inorganic fertilizers will cause so many residues and kill soil organisms.

The forest clearing by burning down the trees also has been cited as the main reason of the air pollution that could affect many areas, not only in Indonesia, it includes Singapore, Malaysia. Usually, the fire is hard to be extinguished, and it will last for months. Yes, it can be imagined how worse the air will be. The haze produced by the fire will cause some serious health problems to the plantations farmers and people. Moreover, by burning the forest down will also release the carbon dioxide to the atmosphere which will cause the global warming. The climate change itself will be brought by the increasing amount of carbon dioxide too, as the consequence of global warming.

Figure 2. A damaged forest after the forest clearing

Behind Indonesia’s successfulness on becoming the world’s number one palm oil producer, it turns out we also can’t ignore that the oil palm plantations, as we can see, hold a lot of negativities. Now we can see that our planet has been sick enough, our planet is like an infected organism, and this forest clearing by burning down the trees for oil palm plantations seriously needs to stop due to Indonesia as a country that contributes the most on deforestation rate in the world will affect so much, and widely, not only for Indonesia itself, but also the neighbouring countries.

Nevertheless, the real problem here is that too many of us use too many resources too fast. As an Indonesian, I’m extremely sad knowing the fact that we will lose 75% of Borneo rainforest by 2020, or even lose all of the Sumatera rainforest in 25 years if the deforestation due to forest clearing for the oil palm plantation still continues. It’s a quite fast tempo.

The other problem is that we, human, are sometimes being so arrogant by acting like we don’t care about nature, like we don’t care about the environment; we act as if we don’t care about what will be the impact of what we do to nature. For all this time, all that we care was just about economic and politic stuffs, we just care about how to maximize our profit as big as we can; without realizing that nature needs to be taken care too. Whereas in reality, human is the only creature who can realize that what we do today will determine the future, but it seems like we forget about that disposition and keep doing the things that could harm the environment and society.

I believe in ancient wisdom that keeps me plug into nature, and the thought that if we do something to nature then we have to pay price for that later. I’m really concerned about what’s going to happen to our planet, to my country especially. I really want to contribute for my country’s forestry affairs.  I want to fix everything that’s improper, because I think we have to work balance in everything and don’t just focusing in one sector only, such as focusing only on the economical stuff like what happen to the oil palm plantations (even though there have been some movements from the government to minimalize the oil palm plantations negativities, but in reality it’s just not as easy as it seems to be handled). I’ve always been believing and thinking there must be something that could be used to solve current forestry issues, and since then it became my fundamental motivation to continue my study in the university by taking the forestry engineering major. By taking this major, I believe that someday, when I’ve became an expert at forestry, I could help my country, even much easier, because at least I’ve known the fundamental rules of how to handle forestry stuffs. Even more when it comes to a forestry restoration business, because that’s what exactly I learn in the university, about restoring the forest. I just have to keep working hard. I have to pursue my goal, so that I could serve & dedicate my life for my country and for Indonesian forest as well. It’s been enough for me to see any damages in our rainforest ever again. It needs to be stopped. Because I believe that if we dare to destroy the universe, or the nature that has given birth and take care of us, then it means we commit suicide.

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