Palm oil isn’t the only junk food ingredient threatening Indonesia’s forests

sugarcane crop
CC BY 2.0 Rufino Uribe

Much attention has been paid to the role of palm oil in the loss of Indonesian forests, but plans for expanded sugarcane plantations are more bad news.

Indonesia is among the countries with the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Between 2000 and 2012, over 6 million hectares of primary forests were cut down, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change.

Demand for timber and wood pulp is a factor in forest loss, as is conversion of forest to produce agricultural products. Deforestation is a serious threat to the local communities who depend on the forests for their traditional livelihoods. The result is not only a loss of local biodiversity and cultural heritage, but also a large contribution to global warming as the rich carbon sink embodied by natural forests is lost.

For many consumers in the U.S. and Europe, palm oil is the commodity of concern, as it's found in everything from cookies to ice cream to shampoo. Forest is regularly cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, which is largely grown for an export market. But last week, the Indonesian government announced that it’s setting aside 500,000 hectares for a different crop: sugarcane.

According to The Jakarta Post, 26 foreign investors have expressed interest in sugarcane plantations and refineries, which are planned for three different regions of Indonesia, including the Aru Islands. The announcement goes against earlier government statements, in which the Minister of Forestry announced that sugarcane permits would be cancelled in the Aru Islands, due to unsuitable land conditions.

Environmental advocates and indigenous groups have criticized the announcement and vowed to fight it, according to Forest Watch Indonesia, an independent monitoring network.

“The presence of plantations in Aru Islands will not only degrade small island ecosystems, but lead to human rights violations against the indigenous peoples who have traditionally controlled and managed their agriculture lands and forests,” said Abdon Nababan, the Secretary General of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago.

“The Agriculture Minister’s reinstatement of Aru Islands as one of eastern Indonesia’s sugar industry development areas is arrogant and arbitrary,” said Jacky Manuputty, who has launched a #SaveAru campaign.

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