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Guest lecture about Deforestation in Indonesia given by ETIA graduate

Deforestation in Indonesia is, for many reasons, far more serious than in Brazil, and we are helping to cause it.

That's what 2009 ETIA graduate Bernice Lee told current participants of the MSc ETIA program in a lecture in March.  Although Brazil has the most rainforest (Indonesia ranks third in global rainforest area), both have the same rate of deforestation.  And that's just the first problem: Indonesia has less rainforest to lose and many other problems too, starting with poverty.

The main driver of Indonesia's deforestation is palm oil production: tropical forest is cleared to make way for huge palm oil plantations.  Oil palm is a cash crop, and is driving the economic development of Indonesia, one of the world's poorest and most populous countries.  Palm oil (the product of the oil palm) is used to make consumer products creamier and smoother, and it's popular with well-known brands like Nestlé, Dove, Unilever and Garnier.  It turns up in a surprising variety of products, from instant noodles and crisps, to chocolate, face creams, soaps and toothpastes: stuff that we all buy. 

But the causes of deforestation are as complex and interdependent as ecosystems themselves, and they don't stop at economic development.  The country's political history plays a role too.  As a young, developing democracy, recently emerged from decades of brutal dictatorship, Indonesia still lacks many of the political and legal institutions needed to protect rainforest and the people who depend on it.  That means the country is vulnerable to corrupt payments for illegal deforestation, as well as to powerful lobbying from oil palm developers, who need land to grow oil palm plantations. 

It makes sense to convert forest to agricultural land.  The cultural and ecological worth of rainforest is hard to justify to people who lack clean water, good sanitation, and health care.  Oil palm developers bring badly needed money and infrastructure investment, in return for forest that few Indonesians really value.  But the result is extensive logging, some illegal, some thinly legalised, and annual forest fires: the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to clear forest for commercial conversion.  Fires get easily out of control, destroying millions of hectares of forest and biodiversity, releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, and blanketing the region with dangerous smog. 

Sustainable solutions to big environmental problems like deforestation are unlikely because our economic system rewards environmental destruction.  We help to perpetuate this, when we buy products containing palm oil.  But our responsibility goes beyond consumer conscience.  As long as pollution, deforestation and biodiversity destruction are labelled as 'externalities', the costs of that damage are not absorbed into the end product.  Those costs include loss of carbon sinks, biodiversity habitat, undiscovered species and medicines, and hydro cycle regulation, for us as well as for future generations.  If every Kit-Kat, Dove cream bar or packet of crisps absorbed the full costs of their production, they'd be unaffordable. 

It's our responsibility to address these systemic failures.  Indonesia needs sustainable alternatives, and to find them, we need a revolution in our approach to economics, geopolitics, global society and well-being.  Any less, and the rainforests and everything in them, cannot survive. 

Bernice Lee is an alumnus of the first Environmental Technology & International Affairs (ETIA) Master's group.  Since ETIA she has worked on Southeast Asian rainforest conservation, education and research programmes. 

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