Hand painting a traditional Dayak Shield in Pontianak

I was finally getting in my flow when I left Pontianak (Borneo) this morning, learning the moods of the weather – a peak of calm sunshine in the early morning as starlings dance along the tops of bamboo, diving down to the rice patties, followed by a pouring forth of the heavens and roof pounding rains until 12 noon and then the return of the thick, humid grey sky until another storm around 4:30pm.

And I was beginning to feel at home in my hotel where I made good friends with all the staff. But now I am on to the next adventure!

I am now in Jakarta on my way to Bogor, writing from a taxi. Yep, no joke – I’m blogging from a taxi. Sounds strange, I know, but I guess this means I’m officially on a business trip. It’s very strange for me to choose efficiency and class executif over the cheapest, slowest, most culturally rich way of transport – bus or train – but I have four NGOs to meet with in the next two days and took my experienced Indonesia colleagues’ word that it’s worth it. So I’m heading in the direction of West Java and Mt. Merapi where toxic ash is still spewing out, causing the displacement of 65,000 people from the three different volcanic eruptions that have taken place in the past week.

But natural disasters aren’t the only reason that thousands of people in Indonesia have been displaced from their homes in the past few weeks. Just two weeks ago, 32,000 people became refugees in the Sintang and Kapuas Hulu Districts of West Kalimantan as their traditional forest lands were flattened in preparation for oil palm plantation conversion. Thank you, Sinar Mas.

Indonesia's disappearing forests

I’ve been learning so much about the systems and laws around land use permits in Indonesia, and the more I learn the more I feel disheartened about protecting the few remaining intact natural forests here from palm oil expansion.

It’s so easy from the U.S. to feel like we are making a huge difference in changing the oil palm industry and creating demand-side pressure for responsible palm oil – because we are, but the amount of corruption and confusion around land use planning here on the ground is dizzying. Because land acquisition for palm oil happens at the local Bupati (district) level in the post Suharto regime (since 2000), permits for forest clearing are way too easy to access as they don’t go through any national, centralized policy framework.  This means that even the Indonesia-Norway LOI and the 2 year moratorium on palm oil expansion – two recent, promising developments  – could be rendered meaningless unless there are some immediate changes implemented.

As Martua T. Sirait wrote in Indigenous Peoples and Oil Palm Plantation Expansion in West Kalimantan, Indonesia:

Oil palm has become the most popular plantation crop in Indonesia due to Crude Palm Oil (CPO) prices doubling between 2000 and early 2008 and the prospect for increased CPO markets for agrofuels.

Oil palm plantations have expanded rapidly in Indonesia in the last decade.  They cover more than seven million hectares and are managed by more than 600 companies and one million small farmers. An additional 11 million hectares of forest land was allocated to the oil palm industry but never planted; after cutting and selling the wood, the companies simply abandoned the lands.  Local and provincial governments have plans to issue licenses for an additional 20 million hectares of oil palm plantations over the next decade. It is expected that most of the permits will be issued in forest areas, as the timber obtained from forest conversion can pay for plantation establishment costs.

Sumatran Tigers and Orangutans on the Brink of Extinction from Palm Oil Expansion

If that isn’t depressing enough, Adri and his friend who stopped by yesterday from Greenomics told me that on the island of Sumatra, whose Riau Province has the second highest rate of palm oil expansion in Indonesia after West Kalimantan Province, there are no more than 300 Sumatran tigers, 400 Sumatran elephants and 4,000 orangutans left.

After hearing that I got up and hovered over the squatter – a beautifully tiled potty hole on the floor that you squat over – to pee, as I tried to hold my breath from the stench. I wondered which was worse – the mix of water and urine I was standing in, barefoot, or the depressing state of the forests and the species that rely on them for survival.

You can probably guess which one I decided on.

I am now wrapping up the day in my Bogor hotel room after a very long, intense interview of three ex palm oil plantation workers that escaped their slave labor situation and are now seeking help. Stay tuned.

It smells like grandma’s house in here, but I think I may smell worse after the heat I experienced today. Yikes you wouldn’t believe it – I just found a three legged cockroach limping in the bathroom – the poor little bugger! I’m glad I always find only one, but hope they are not lonely. I’m going to fall asleep dreaming about the most delicious meal of the trip thus far – garo garo – veggie peanut sauce heaven!