Velez: Hazy shade of palm oil

THE mid-afternoon sky last October 24 was a weird mix of bright and dark as I sat with my wife looking at our kid dancing during his playschool’s fun day.

The clouds covered the sun, but there’s no sign of rain as the weather remained humid.

“It’s the haze,” says one parent sitting beside me. The Indonesian forest fire that started since September and had spread all across Southeast Asia.

This worried my seatmate, he told me his eldest son has been vulnerable to asthma since it happened. I remembered my throat felt irritated that I coughed at times.

I caught up with friends and teachers who complained the haze has triggered their allergies and sore throat. It’s been a problem, even until now as we read this, the haze is still there.

The culprit for this hazard are the Indonesian landowners who practiced slash-and-burn to clear lands for logging and mostly oil palm plantation, as this country is the world’s leading producer of palm oil. Palm oil is a vital product found in your soap, toothpaste or snacks like peanut butter, ice cream or cookie, and is feedstock for biofuel.

The global demand for this accounts to Indonesia’s 11 percent of its annual exports and earning $5.7 billion in government taxes, according to The Guardian report.

But the incendiary push for this product has resulted to this Asian hazard. The haze covers approximately 10,000 hectares covering 5,000 kilometers mostly in Sumatra.

Sumatra’s land size is 473,481 square km, five times Mindanao’s land size of 97,530 square kilometre. The Guardian again quoted Greenpeace saying palm oil is the leading cause of forest fires in Indonesia from 2009-11.
The fires have caused Norway to withdraw its investment portfolio in Asian companies due to this incident.

What this shows is how one small country’s pursuit of agribusiness literary sparked a health and environment disaster of Asian and perhaps global proportion. This is a telling lesson for economic gurus here who are pushing for oil palm plantations here in Mindanao to meet the global demand.

In the launching last October 28 in UP Diliman of the Network Resisting Expansion of Agricultural Plantations in Mindanao (REAP Mindanao), a side event of the Manilakbayan for Lumads, the group warns the government targeting massive expansion of plantations in the island.

This includes 256,360 hectares for sugarcane, 150,000 hectares for cacao by 2020, 116,000 hectares for rubber, 87,903 hectares for coffee plantations, and almost one (1) million hectares of oil palm plantations by 2030.

The figures are staggering, considering that there are already 500,000 hectares in Mindanao covered in plantations, replacing 12% of the island’s agricultural area. This affects not only the environment, but also our food supply to the region and the country.

This also translates to why conflict is happening in Mindanao areas targeted for plantations. Most of these areas are in ancestral lands. Lumads not only confront mining, but plantation business, aided again by the gun.

This is the case of the Lumads in Opol, Misamis Oriental occupied by A. Brown oil palm venture.

The network also reported that the Dole Philippines in Polomolok is eyeing an expansion of at least 12,000 hectares for its pineapple plantation. The same goes to Unifrutti, which invested P3.7 billion for its expansion of 2,600 hectares for Cavendish bananas in Moro areas such as Maguindanao.

While the haze is worrisome now, the next expansion in our lands could be more worrisome. Slash and burn and guns for profit doesn’t only affect forests, it destroys Lumads’ lives as well.

*****

(e-mail: tyvelez@gmail.com)
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