It's grueling and even depressing to plow through one litany of horrors after another. What makes the task bearable for me is that there are always a few people caught up in a disaster who throw a monkey wrench at the wheels of the juggernaut. So it happened with an Indonesian disaster, as chronicled by the New York Times in collaboration with ProPublica in a November 20 report written by Abraham Lustgarten, Palm Oil Was Supposed to Help Save the Planet. Instead It Unleashed a Catastrophe: "A decade ago, the U.S. mandated the use of vegetable oil in biofuels, leading to industrial-scale deforestation — and a huge spike in carbon emissions."
The report is a bombshell dropped into the living rooms of elite Anti-Global Warmists; although they already knew about the horrors unleashed by their support of agri-fuels, I believe they thought the worst of the story had been quashed by their fellow travelers in the mainstream media. In that case they didn't plan on the tenacity of an Indonesian who got very angry about the way the people in his village were screwed out of what little rights they had to their land, and who got hold of damning evidence.
Nor did they appreciate that an American attorney who worked for the Environmental Defense Fund was not a potted plant. He was one of 'their people,' but he was not going to keep his mouth shut for the greater good of helping the elite battle carbon emissions. Not when he saw that using biofuels to reduce carbon emissions was going to produce the opposite effect.
In 2007, as he watched President G.W. Bush outline in a televised address his plan for the U.S. government to back agri-fuels, all the knowledge he'd gained while working on climate issues for the Fund came together. He blurted, "My God, what the hell is happening here?"
In a flash the attorney, Timothy Searchinger, saw what would happen. From the Times-ProPublica report:
Quintupling biofuel production would require a huge amount of additional arable land, far more than existed in the United States. Unless Americans planned to eat less, that meant displacing food production to some other country with unused land — and he knew that when forests are cut, or new land is opened for farming, substantial new amounts of carbon can be released into the atmosphere.
Forests hold as much as 45 percent of the planet’s carbon stored on land, and old-growth trees in particular hold a great deal of that carbon, typically far more than any of the crops that replace them. When the trees are cut down, most of that carbon is released.But Searchinger didn't have a crystal ball. So not with all his knowledge and intelligence could he project what would also happen. Cutting down lots of trees is bad in terms of carbon release. Burning the tree stumps is worse. But burning tree stumps perched on peatland is carbon-release apocalypse.
That's what happened. A global agri-business firm -- ironically Singaporean not American -- was quick to react to Bush's announcement, and then the Indonesian government made a financial killing by offering big chunks of its country. Across Indonesia, "trees were cut down at a rate of three acres every minute to make room" for the palm plantations. But when they started in on Indonesia's part of the island of Borneo they ran into trees growing in peatland.
To cut a story:
NASA researchers say the accelerated destruction of Borneo’s forests contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, an explosion that transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of such emissions.
Instead of creating a clever technocratic fix to reduce American’s carbon footprint, [U.S.] lawmakers had lit the fuse on a powerful carbon bomb that, as the forests were cleared and burned, produced more carbon than did the entire continent of Europe.
The unprecedented palm-oil boom, meanwhile, has enriched and emboldened many of the region’s largest corporations, which have begun using their newfound power and wealth to suppress critics, abuse workers and acquire more land to produce oil.Setting aside carbon apocalypse the story gets even worse, and this is where the Indonesian whistleblower, Gusti Gelambong, comes in. This part of Lustgarten's report is a real page-turner but I'm going to cite just these passages before we hop over to Brazil:
To make Indonesia’s plan [to turn the nation into a palm plantation] a reality, a complicated question of land ownership had to be addressed. Much of the new development was focused on Borneo, where many villages were settled before there were nations, let alone land deeds.
To create a legal basis for development, the Indonesian government established a commercial land-share system in the 1980s. In theory, the system let villages sign over development rights in return for some part of the profit. But in practice, many villagers said, companies often secured the permits they needed through some combination of intense lobbying, bribery and strong-arming, and the result was broken promises and missing payments.
Villagers were often simply outmatched by their huge negotiating partners. Wilmar was already a powerhouse in 2007, with operations in 23 countries on four continents, employing more than 60,000 people. When Wilmar said it would buy more than 200,000 acres in the states surrounding Gusti Gelambong’s village [in Borneo], it was a signal for others, too, to rush in. One of Indonesia’s largest conglomerates, the Salim Group — which owns Indofood, the nation’s largest maker of instant noodles — said it would pay $13 million for 200,000 acres in East and Central Kalimantan.Meanwhile in Brazil
After falling for several years, [Amazon] deforestation began rising again in 2013, the year after leftist president Dilma Rousseff approved a new forest code which gave an amnesty to those deforesting on small properties. Deforestation has risen in four of the six years since then, including in 2016, the year Rousseff was impeached and replaced by her former vice-president Michel Temer.
Temer has made further concessions to powerful agribusiness interests in return for support from its congressional representatives – including approving a measure that legalised land that had been squatted in the Amazon, a common deforestation driver.
Moves like these signalled the Brazilian congress was no longer concerned about deforestation, said [Marcio Astrini, Greenpeace Brasil’s public policy coordinator], which encouraged deforestation.
"We feel in our field work that these deforestation gangs are very confident they will get amnesty or that they are covered,” he said.That's from a November 23, 2013 Guardian report, Brazil records worst annual deforestation for a decade:
Between August 2017 and July 2018, 7,900sq kms were deforested, according to preliminary figures from the environment ministry based on satellite monitoring – a 13.7% rise on the previous year and the biggest area of forest cleared since 2008. The area is equivalent to 987,000 football pitches.As to where the situation is headed:
As more and more of the Amazon is cut down, the world’s greatest forest is now getting close to the “tipping point” – after which experts fear it could disappear.
“A moment will arrive in which the accumulation of this deforestation will cause an effect in which the forest will stop being a forest,” Astrini said. “The scientists calculate this is between 20-30%. We are very close to the 20%.”
The Climate Observatory (Observatório do Clima) – a non-profit, climate change network – calculated that in 2017, 46% of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions were due to deforestation.But for the bottom line I return to Lustgarten's report:
Now, according to the Indonesian development officials, 80 million Indonesians depend economically on palm oil, and nearly half the industry consists of individual landowners like the people in Kotawaringin. “If you pull out biofuel, the whole system will collapse” ...The statistics might vary a little but it's basically the same in the Amazon.