Revolution #199, April 18, 2010

The Plunder of the Rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia

"Borneo rainforests are one of the wonders of the natural world. They support at least 15,000 plant species, including more than 2,500 kinds of orchids.... There are flowers as big as deck chairs, one of the world's largest butterflies, pygmy elephants, flying snakes, huge crocodiles, rhinoceros hornbills, a true rhinoceros so rare that there are just a few dozen left in the wild, and the orangutans."

"Among the Great Apes:
Adventures on the Trail of our Closest Relatives"—Paul Raffaele

The last great tropical rainforests on earth lie along the equator—in the Amazon region of South America, and Asia and Africa. They are quickly disappearing—being logged off for timber, cleared and burned to grow soy beans, cattle, coffee, and palm oil—products to be sold on the international market.

Indonesia, a land of 17,000 islands in Asia, has 10% of the world's remaining tropical rainforest. The Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo (divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei) are lands of immense natural richness and biodiversity. They're home of many unique species such as the Sumatran tiger, forest elephants, and the last remaining home of the orangutan—Asia's only great ape. Indonesian biodiversity is so rich that it contains 10-16% of the world's flowering plants, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians despite having only 1.3% of the world's land surface. But this rich diversity of species is being threatened, as the land is plundered by logging for timber, and cleared for palm oil plantations. Almost three-quarters of Indonesia's original forest is already gone. According to the United Nations Environmental Project (UNEP), at current rates of destruction, almost all of Indonesia's forests will be gone by 2022.

Deforestation has driven Sumatran tigers almost to the point of extinction—only 400 or so remain in the wild. On Borneo, orangutans are endangered and on Sumatra, they are critically endangered. The forests orangutans live in are being wiped out and fragmented, often replaced by vast expanses of single crop oil palm trees. Orangs are being divided up by forest loss into smaller groups where it's much harder for populations to interbreed. In 1997-98, massive forest fires on Borneo burned millions of acres, engulfing neighboring countries in polluting smoke. Palm oil growers intentionally set the great majority of these fires, to clear land. In the process, they exterminated as much as 1/3 of Borneo's orangutan population—tens of thousands of animals. (Oil for Ape Scandal). At current rates of elimination, it is predicted orangs could go extinct within a decade. When they are gone, they will never be coming back.

Orangutans evolved in connection with living in the trees. They are incredibly agile swinging from branch to branch in the rainforest, but clumsy and fairly immobile on the ground. As their habitat is destroyed, these endangered apes are increasingly forced out of the forest onto the ground on palm tree plantations where they are often hunted and killed as "pests," or captured and sold into the pet trade.

If the plunder of Asia's rainforests was only causing ecological disaster by eliminating biodiversity and wondrous species, that would be bad enough. But the cutting and burning down of forests is also a major contributor to global warming. It's been estimated that rainforest destruction in the world may contribute as much as 20% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. And rainforest destruction in Indonesia now releases so much carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air that the country is the 3rd largest emitter of CO2 in the world behind China and the U.S. Palm oil tree plantations are being developed with no regard for consequences to nature. Now palm plantations are even targeting peat lands—lands extremely rich in carbon bound up in roots and soil. The drying, draining and burning of these lands is particularly dangerous because of the great quantities of carbon that will be released.

Major multinational businesses and banks of most of the imperialist world—from Switzerland, Britain, the U.S., China and others are directly financing and profiting from sales of products based on rainforest destruction. And even more deeply, the role of the U.S. military and government, and the major financial institutions it controls, the World Bank (WB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), lie at the heart of what set into motion and what is still driving rainforest destruction.

It was the U.S. government and U.S. military that trained top sections of the Indonesian military and backed the dictator Suharto in seizing power in Indonesia from nationalists in 1965. The CIA supplied lists of Indonesian Communists to Suharto's military to be rounded up. The U.S backed and hailed Suharto as he systematically killed between 250-750,000 leftists in setting up a brutal dictatorship. The IMF stabilized Suharto's rule with a $51 million loan and promoted polices and development prying Indonesia open to foreign capital. Under Suharto the destruction of rainforest for rubber plantations, mining, timber interests and palm oil sped ahead. Often Suharto's own family and cronies benefited richly as well. During this time, Suharto's military drowned East Timor in blood. They killed over 200,000 people to put down an independence struggle and turned East Timor into what its people called "the biggest prison island in the world." All this could never have occurred without the support of the U.S., who saw Indonesia as a bulwark for its interests in a strategic part of the world.

Indonesia was trumpeted by the imperialist powers as being a key part of the "Asian miracle" until the Asian economy crashed in 1997. The World Bank admitted this "miracle" for Indonesia, had been the result of a strategy where Indonesia's forests were treated "as an asset to be liquidated to support (its) growth strategy, establishing Indonesia as a world leader in the export of tropical forest products." After the crash, Suharto was eventually forced from power and the U.S and IMF imposed new "austerity measures" forcing the Indonesian government to cut social programs and open Indonesia up even more to foreign investment. U.S., IMF and World Bank loans and bailouts dictated that Indonesia produce more crops for export—timber, paper pulp and palm oil, as the "way out" of the financial crisis.

Today, Malaysia and Indonesia produce at least 75% of the world's palm oil and are competing to out-produce each other. Palm oil is used in everything from ice cream, to cosmetics, to margarine. And palm oil tree plantations are now the leading cause of rainforest destruction. Financing for these plantations comes from many sources, including the Asian Development Bank, several British and Swiss Banks, etc. And it is capitalist multinationals like Unilever, Nestlé, Proctor & Gamble, along with rich Indonesian interests, that profit from palm oil production.

Now, especially with rainforest destruction and climate change in the spotlight, it is common for these companies and imperialist financial groups to speak of "responsible" palm oil development and to bring forward programs they claim will "save the rainforests." But looking underneath the hype reveals that "green" and capitalism just cannot go together. Instead, rainforests, as the World Bank admitted, continue to be just "assets to be liquidated." For example, the World Bank touts its "strategic framework" for protecting rainforests and combating climate change. But an internal WB audit showed the Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC) has been fueling rainforest destruction—financing palm oil plantations with $200 million dollars despite being aware there were big dangers to the environment.

Palm oil is also used as a biofuel to replace oil and gas, with the logic that biofuels will be "cleaner" and not produce large amounts of carbon dioxide when burned. In the name of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the European Union directed European countries to have 10% of transport fuel supplied by biofuels by 2020. But much of this will come from palm oil which is readily available and relatively inexpensive. And as we've shown, palm oil production itself is fueling climate change by destroying the rainforests with total disregard for the consequences, releasing tremendous quantities of carbon dioxide.

The destruction of rainforests, the annihilation of precious forest life and the massive release of carbon dioxide that results raise again the high stakes of the environmental emergency we face.

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