A paradise lost

The writing on the sign was a warning from one of the palm oil companies; it warns locals that if they damaged any of the companies' resources, plants, canals or other infrastructure, they were liable to a fine of up to $250,000 and 6 years in prison. The sign below ‘conservation area’, just tells everyone that this area is protected and that it is not permitted to cut or burn trees. The sad reality is that all the primary trees have already been taken by ‘the people’ and all that’s left is secondary forest.

Just two years before, this land belonged to its people, people who had lived in almost perfect harmony with their rich ecosystem that provided them with vegetables, meat, pure water and clean air. Thousands of medicinal plants, species of tree, insect, snake, monkey and even tigers lived in these forests, as they had for centuries, mutually benefiting on an other. But then everything changed, and the governments and politicians who are no longer governments and politicians decided that these life giving natural resources were no longer something to be treasured, conserved and passed on to future generations.

Within less than an orangutan's lifespan, most of the worlds third largest islands tropical rain forest has been destroyed. As global economic systems, detached from the realities of true sustainability continue to rip apart the very fabric of our delicate planet. Rich soils and favourable weather systems that were once a blessing to these lands have now become a curse as corrupt governments, Oligarchs, banks and corporations rush to cash in on these priceless natural resources.

It's nothing new. It's a pattern we have seen time and time again, throughout history, the manipulation and control of natural and human resources in the interests of a minority and to the detriment of the majority. The only difference this time is the scale of the exploitation and the effect that it is having on the planet as a whole.

There is an organisation called the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), an organisation created to regulate and monitor the 'sustainable development' of palm plantations across the world. The RSPO maintains that companies that sign up to their charter will be able to carry their logo and therefore demonstrate that the company has some kind of environmental consciousness towards their industry, like the fair trade movement, anti child labour and so many other organisations that have sprung up over the past couple of decades.

Huge companies with media-manufactured reputations buy into this organisations then spend millions more in the promotion of 'sustainable' business practices. Some of the largest global corporations such as Kraft, Nestle and Unilever boast of their commitment to the planet, primates and its people, creating a perception amongst consumers of compliance with international standards, and respect for the environment and communities where they operate.

I was travelling with Friends of the Earth and their Indonesian partner Walhi. We had just five days in the village, six of us squeezed into a pick up, cameras and a GPS to pinpoint our location and the exact position of the companies illegal deforestation and palm plantations. Every day we travelled hours along some of the worst roads, flooded and pot-holed, even the four wheel drive was reduced to a crawl.

Some of the first illegal activity we came across was the destruction of peat forests. Indonesia has strict laws that prohibit the cutting down of trees in these areas. The primary reason for this is the effect the elimination of these peat lands has on climate change. In its original state, the land here stores vast quantities carbon - n fact some estimates claim up to 550 gigatonnes of it. Millions of years old, the carbon is stabilised by the soil’s structure. When these soils and ancient systems are disturbed, the carbon is released into the atmosphere, a process that is not only irreversible, but one which actively contributes to the warming of the planet.

Obek, our host, is a school teacher. At 61 years of age he has seen many changes to his environment. Although he now teaches, he still has a plot of land where he cultivates some rubber trees to give the family some income over and above the little he earns at school. He's visibly upset and irritated by many of the communities around him, who he accuses of being lazy.

Rather than getting up in the morning and working the land to provide food and income for the family, many have decided to hand their rights over to the palm plantations, In return they get a little money and one acre of land that they have to turn into palm, which they then have to sell to the company. Many people are now just beginning to wake up, but sadly, he says, too late.

Their money has all but gone and they now are having to wait 4 years before the palms begin to yield their first harvest. Their forest was once abundant with vegetables, fruits, medicine and animals but now they have all gone. There is no fire wood for cooking, no clean water for drinking and now the soil is no longer as fertile as it once was.

They have sold the goose that laid the golden egg, they no longer have these resources free and they now need to earn money to buy inferior packaged foods and bottled water.' We are no longer free he tells us. We now are at the mercy of the company for everything, if we don't work for them or recycle the rubbish they discard, we have a difficult time surviving.'

It was my second trip to the Island of Borneo and the Indonesian region of Kalimantan. My last trip, in the south, was to look at how communities were developing systems that helped preserve their forests, while enabling them to be able to sustainably grow and harvest commodity crops like rubber, cinnamon and candle berry and even palm oil. Miles of pristine primary forest provided endless services to a community that had lived in the forest for many hundreds of years. The people have a profound knowledge and a deep respect for their environment, their past and for their future generations. I had been deeply moved by the forest communities I had stayed with. Things were not perfect but at least there was positivity in the story, a solution and an alternative to a chemical, mono crop, industrialised system. And the absolute annihilate of an eco system.

Please help and share these images, share the film and the Friends of the Earth report. Commodity Crimes: Illicit land grabs, illegal palm oil and endangered orangutans.