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Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007
On a recent humid morning in Riau, a province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, a young man named Suranto wakes early on a Sunday, wraps a red T shirt around his head and ambles off to the fields to work. Suranto isn't a local; he has come from northern Sumatra because there are jobs in Riau. The forests and peatlands of the area are being transformed into plantations, and workers are being paid to plant tens of thousands of young oil-palm trees in fields stripped bare of their native vegetation by burning. As Suranto stoops and digs one hole after another amid the blackened stumps of an old tropical forest, he looks like a camp follower picking through the detritus of a still-smoldering battlefield.


The biodiesel boom has a high environmental cost, however. Critics say it's contributing to global warming. Tropical forests help remove millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. Burning and clear-cutting not only eliminates one of the planet's crucial air-filtration systems, the process also releases even more carbon dioxide into the air, in smoke or as gases released during the decomposition of forest waste. Annual clearing of Indonesia's carbon-rich peatlands alone releases some 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases, according to a Greenpeace report. Indonesia is the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind the U.S. and China, says the World Bank. "We liken what's going on [in Indonesia] to pouring petrol on a fire," says Martin Baker, a Hong Kong-based communications officer for Greenpeace International. "It's completely ridiculous to produce green fuels from places like this."

It doesn't seem so ridiculous to poor countries like Indonesia, where leaders are torn between the need to develop the country's natural resources and increasing international pressure to preserve remaining forests. This dilemma is expected to be a hot topic this month at a U.N.-led conference on climate change in Bali, where representatives from 189 nations are gathering to negotiate a set of environmental rules to succeed the Kyoto protocols, the main provisions of which expire in 2012.


That may be so — but as long as there is demand for biodiesel, it seems unrealistic to expect Indonesia to stop converting forests into plantations. These days, Riau's main highway is clogged with trucks carting processed palm oil from local refineries to the Sumatran port town of Dumai. Outside one house, not far from the provincial capital of Pekanbaru, a woman weighing out heavy red palm fruit on a scale in her front yard says her family used to only sell fruit from their 200 palm trees. But with the high prices palm oil fetches these days, she says her family members have gone into business as middlemen for the industry, helping other small growers sell to larger plantations. "We were able to move up," she says.

It's success stories like this one that will bedevil those attending the Bali conference. One of the central issues will be how to justly allocate the economic burden of reducing greenhouse emissions among industrialized countries — which have grown rich fouling the air and using up natural resources — and developing countries like China, India and Indonesia. "We have to be careful about asking developing countries to lock up their forests," says Taylor of the WWF. That is, at least until the world has found a way to make locking up the forests pay.