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Things to know about palm oil and Indonesia's raging forest fires | Malaysia



Aerial view of forest fire next to oil palm plantation at Kumpeh Ulu district in Muarojambi, Indonesia, July 30, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. - Antara Photo / Wahdi Septiawan pic via Reuters
Aerial view of forest fire next to oil palm plantation at Kumpeh Ulu district in Muarojambi, Indonesia, July 30, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. – Antara Photo / Wahdi Septiawan pic via Reuters

JAKARTA, Sept 29 – Forest fires raging across Indonesia have sent air quality levels plummeting across Southeast Asia as they belch out emissions that aggravate global warming.

The country's palm oil industry bears much of the blame for out-of-control blazes, as producers burn land to make way for their plantations.

The pulp-and-paper sector has also come under fire for criticism, as have small-scale farmers using slash-and-burn techniques to clear land for planting crops.

Here's a look at palm oil and its role in the smog crisis.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world. It is found in everything from soap and chocolate to pizza and cosmetics, and even vehicle gas tanks – palm oil is used in biodiesels.

Extracted from the reddish-brown fruit of the palm tree oil, it helps make foods easier to spread or fried crispier products while giving them a longer shelf life.

Indonesia is the world's top producer and – along with Malaysia's number two grower – supplies some 85 per cent of the world's palm oil.

The multi-billion-dollar industry employs millions in Indonesia alone.

Sounds good, what's the problem?

Environmentalists say palm oil drives deforestation, with vast areas of south-east Asian rainforest logged in recent decades to make way for plantations. This threatens the habitat of orangutans and other endangered species.

Some palms are grown on swampy peatlands which become highly flammable when they are drained of water to grow crops.

Palm oil development also contributes to climate change through deliberate forest-clearing fires that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and lung-clogging smog into the region's air, critics say.

But the industry deserves to be blamed, saying its plants are usually not the source of burning and that flames spread from nearby areas.

Political battle

Green activists have taken their beef with the powerful palm oil sector onto the world stage in a bid to shake the industry into action and alert consumers about what to eat – enriching Indonesia and Malaysia.

An increasingly bitter trade battle is also in full swing between Indonesia and the European Union after the bloc decides to cut its use of palm-based biofuels for cars by 2030.

The EU previously imposed duties on subsidized imports of biodiesel from Indonesia saying it needed to level the playing field for its producers.

In response, Indonesia threatened to impose higher tariffs on EU dairy products.

Malaysia this year hit out at Europe's biofuel phase-out, saying it might buy new fighter jets from China instead of European aviation firms.

What's going to change?

Probably not much in the short term – the palm oil industry is a huge employer and is not going anywhere.

Indonesia's fires have been an annual problem for decades, though this year's was particularly bad due to the dry weather.

Indonesia is pushing to educate people about the dangers of burning land for palm oil and other agriculture, but the practice is widespread and spotty enforcement.

President Joko Widodo last year issued a moratorium on new forest clearance for palm plantations to reduce the outbreak of fires.

Indonesia's biodiverse deforestation rates may have peaked, but, over the last half century, rainforests covering an area twice the size of Germany have been logged, burned, or degraded. – AFP


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