Last year, Indonesian forest fires shocked the world. Some called them ‘the worst environmental disaster of the 21st century’. So why hasn’t that shock turned into action — and why are fires blazing across Indonesia again?
Aerial view of fires at the forest and palm oil plantation in peatland area of Pangkalan Terap, Teluk Meranti, Pelalawan regency, Riau.
Decades of forest destruction by palm oil and paper companies laid the foundations for 2015’s Indonesian forest fires. The Indonesian government responded with a firm commitment to crack down on rogue companies. Hundreds of thousands of us pushed brands like Colgate to toughen up their ‘no deforestation’ policies.
But while some progress has been made, some of the biggest palm oil traders are still sitting on their hands. One particular company, called IOI, has been making and breaking promises on forest protection for almost 10 years. It is one of the biggest palm oil importers in Europe and used to supply big brands like Nestlé and Unilever.
It’s difficult to trace palm oil, but no doubt IOI’s palm oil ends up in some of the toothpaste we use or the biscuits we eat.
IOI get away with all of this by remaining in the shadows. Unlike consumer-facing companies — which have listened to public concern and started to say no to dirty palm oil — IOI have zero public brand to worry about.
Trust me, they’ve got 96 Twitter followers.
IOI is one of the worst companies you’ve never heard of. But we’re going to change that. We have to make sure that people across the world know about IOI — and for all the wrong reasons. Only then will IOI feel global pressure to change — and only then can we help to stem these destructive fires.
So here’s a quick run-down on how three small letters are destroying the rainforest — and when you’re done reading, please share this so that IOI can no longer get away with it.
Tree stump near a drainage canal on the boundary area of PT Bumi Sawit Sejahtera (IOI) oil palm concession in Ketapang, West Kalimantan.
FOREST FIRES ARE A MASSIVE PROBLEM FOR INDONESIA — AND THE GLOBAL CLIMATE.
Indonesia suffers from terrible forest fires, with large areas of the country burning between August and November each year. The Indonesian government estimates that 1.7 million hectares of land — an area slightly smaller than Wales — burned in 2015.
Deforestation and forest fires are also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions for Indonesia, which is one of the world’s biggest polluters despite being less developed than other nations. Last year, the fires produced more CO2 in just a few months than the UK does annually.
FOREST FIRES CAUSE A MASSIVE HEALTH CRISIS FOR SOUTHEAST ASIA.
Each year, smoke from the fires causes a thick haze to spread across Indonesia and the surrounding countries, leaving people and animals struggling to breathe. This is a major health crisis. The government estimates that half million people in Indonesia were treated for respiratory tract infections. Recently, scientists from Harvard and Columbia universities calculated 100,300 people in Southeast Asia died prematurely last year as a result of haze pollution caused by forest fires.
A group of children play outdoors without wearing any protection while the air is engulfed with thick haze
IOI CUTS DOWN PRECIOUS RAINFOREST.
IOI have a long history of forest destruction. Greenpeace first exposed its deforestation in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) in 2008. Since then, IOI have converted tens of thousands of hectares into palm oil plantations — including the home of endangered orangutans. Having destroyed most of the forest in its own plantation areas, IOI is still buying palm oil from companies that are still clearing.
Deforestation is a huge problem in Indonesia. Over just 25 years, more than a quarter of Indonesia’s forests have disappeared. Palm oil companies are not only one of the main causes of Indonesia’s decreasing rainforest, but they are also linked to the astonishing decline in orangutans and other endangered species like tigers. There are as few as 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild, and experts are now warning that orangutans could completely die out within 10 years.
IOI IGNORE THE RISK OF FIRES
Not only does forest destruction threaten endangered animals, but it’s a leading cause of forest fires in Indonesia. To make matters worse, IOI is draining peat swamps. Swampy peat doesn’t burn easily, but dry peat is extremely flammable.
Fires on peatland have a devastating impact on the environment, releasing carbon dioxide that’s been in the ground over thousands of years. Yet despite major fires on its land last year (and in previous years) IOI hasn’t stopped draining peat swamps. Ignoring these glaringly obvious risks is not good enough for a global palm oil company with a responsibility to protect people, primates and planet.
Residents rescue a 7-month old orangutan from the forest fires.
IOI CAPITALISE ON THE FIRES
Palm oil companies are regularly accused of slash-and-burn: setting fires deliberately to clear land so they can plant oil palm seeds. The Indonesian government tried to stop this destructive practice by ordering companies to restore any land that was burnt by forest fires.
But IOI doesn’t seem to have got the memo. In 2016, we visited an IOI plantation in Borneo and found evidence that IOI was planting oil palm saplings in recently burned areas.
THEY DISREGARD HUMAN RIGHTS.
IOI have a history of conflicts with local people. The Long Teran Kanan community in Malaysia, whose land was taken from them in 1996 and developed into palm oil plantations, has been trying to get IOI to recognise their rights for over six years.
The company has also been accused of abusing its workers — taking their passports and restricting their right to join a trade union. They also have been reported to pay many of them less than the minimum wage.
Indonesian police designates this a “crime scene”.
…AND THE INDUSTRY LETS THEM GET AWAY WITH IT
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) — set up by NGOs, palm oil companies and their customers — is supposed to be a tough industry watchdog. But it’s pretty toothless. The RSPO has known about IOI for years, but only suspended them in April. Then it quickly re-admitted the company in August — before IOI had even started to repair the damage it had done.
…BUT WE WON’T
It doesn’t have to be like this. Palm oil can actually be produced responsibly! Indonesia’s rainforest and its orangutans are dramatically decreasing, while the demand for palm oil only gets bigger, so the solution is simple: IOI and companies like them must change and start protecting rainforests.
We’re calling on IOI to stop its palm oil suppliers destroying rainforests, repair the damage they’ve already done, start protecting its workers and local communities & appoint an independent auditor to help them keep these promises.
If IOI take action now, then maybe…
India Thorogood is a Digital Campaigner at Greenpeace UK.