Palm oil, an ingredient in half of all packaged foods worldwide, has a bad reputation because it’s associated with the clearing of virgin rainforest to make way for plantations, threatening wildlife and wreaking environmental destruction from Borneo to Guatemala.
That hasn’t stopped Indonesia continuing with a program of clearing and planting that now has dedicated almost 11 million hectares to the crop.
Drone photos just released show the effect of the palm oil and logging concessions belonging to one company, Korindo, a South Korean firm that produces plywood, pulp, and palm oil, among other things. The photos, part of an investigation by a consortium of non-governmental organizations, are of land in Papua, an Indonesian province on an island that’s 85% covered with rainforest. This is what part of it looks like now:
Mighty, a US-based NGO, worked alongside Indonesian and Korean organizations to commission the report. Beginning last autumn, when Indonesia went through a toxic-haze crisis stemming from the burning of forests, the researchers collected data and analyzed satellite images. The field investigation took place during the first week of June 2016, and all the drone footage was filmed then, they said.
The deforestation itself isn’t illegal. Quartz spoke to Korindo’s head of sustainability, who didn’t want his name to be used. He said that everything the company does is legal, and takes place inside government-mandated palm oil concessions.
Deliberate burning of cut-down trees, however, is against the law in Indonesia. Such burning caused a major, deadly air pollution disaster in the region last year, so bad it was called “the biggest environmental crime of the 21st century” by Erik Meijaard, who coordinates the environmental research initiative Borneo Futures.
The NGO report says Korindo is burning intensively in its concessions as well as deforesting them. The report includes several photographs, as well as satellite image analysis.
More pictures of smoke rising from the plantations, sent to the group by an independent researcher and probably taken in 2013, appear to corroborate that burning is taking place:
More concrete and recent evidence comes from satellite image analysis combined with “hotspots,” or areas of intense heat. They show intensive burning in the concession areas over the period, the report says:
The company denies the accusation that it set any deliberate fires. “Actually that’s not true, because we have followed all the Indonesian regulation and we haven’t used any fires for the land clearing,” Korindo’s head of sustainability told Quartz. “We haven’t ever used any fires for opening the forest.”
The company also sent a follow-up letter saying the same thing. In it, the company suggested that local people had set the fires in order to flush out game.