6. Have a Nice Death with the WWF
The WWF is skilled in the art of money-making. For example, the YouTube campaign to solicit funds for the orangutans, our "jungle cousins": to the strains of a melodramatic film score, an orangutan flees the chain saws as they savage the rainforests of Borneo. The orangutan turns his big sad eyes to the viewer. An apocalyptical voiceover intones: "His home is our climate. Save both. You can help with an SMS. Send 'Borneo' to 81190. WWF -- for a living planet."
It's nice to be able to unburden your heavy conscience in seconds with a simple tap-tap-tap on the smartphone -- for a scant 7 dollars. The ploy works, and it doesn't occur to contributors that their insta-donation might not actually go to the orangutans. But what does the WWF really do to help save these great apes? One searches the WWF website in vain for current accounting statements and financial reports with reliable figures. Transparency is not the WWF's strong suit. No one knows exactly where donation monies totaling around 700 million dollars a year end up.
According to the WWF only 8 percent of the total donation funds are used to cover administrative costs; everything else, they claim, goes directly to the projects on site and to support educational work. However, this calculation neglects to itemize the salaries of the organization's full-time staff -- these sums are often included in the project expenses and thus concealed. In truth, according to American author Christine MacDonald, personnel costs gobble up nearly 50 percent of the WWF's receipts.  The organization has almost 5,000 full-time staff mouths to feed worldwide -- and the pay packets of WWF top management are hefty indeed. The CEO of WWF USA alone collects an annual salary of 505,000 dollars.Borneo Ablaze
Our investigation eventually put us on a plane to Borneo, more precisely to Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island. As soon as we landed at Palangkaraya Airport I got an impression of the power the WWF wields in Indonesia. Inside the airport building hung huge posters promoting the Sabangau National Park, which is under the stewardship of the WWF. Instead of the conventional souvenir shop in the main entry hall there was a WWF shop, full of bright brochures telling of the organization's good works in reforestation and the fight against game poachers.Nordin
Nordin was waiting for us outside. He heads the human rights organization Save Our Borneo and is a member of the supervisory board of the Indonesian section of Friends of the Earth. He knows every tree trunk in central Kalimantan. The strong, compactly built, always slightly surly man states his profession as "Activist". Nordin is up against powerful opponents, who are rapidly deforesting his homeland to make way for palm oil plantations.
Together with Nordin and his colleague Udin we set out by jeep for the realm of the orangutans. At around midday the thermometer rose to above 40 degrees Celsius. The humidity lay like a dirty film on our skin. The countryside was a lush green: patches of plucked rainforest, between them the fields of forest farmers, and then another brutalized patch, where only the torsos of a few decapitated rainforest giants had been left standing. The lumber companies had arrived twenty 20 years before to mow down the forests.Only 30 percent of Kalimantan's original rainforest remains.
But left in peace, the deforested areas recuperate relatively quickly in the hot, humid local climate. Just a few years on, a secondary forest had already grown up, once again providing a habitat for an astonishingly diverse range of species. Nevertheless, the rainforest is now condemned to certain death: the state has given it as a concession to domestic and foreign palm oil companies. Indonesia's central government has put its chips on the expansion of the palm oil industry, the country's presumed best bet for achieving wealth and power.
The third party in this deal, alongside the Indonesian state and industry, is the WWF. It alone has what it takes to convince the general public in Europe and the USA that intensive palm oil farming can be good not only for the economic development of poor countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, but for the natural environment as well. With the help of the invincible panda, most companies now produce "sustainable" palm oil, for which allegedly only "degraded" forests are cleared, and not the "virgin" rainforests of Asia and the Americas.
Nordin had only a sardonic laugh for this scenario: "Already we have virtually no primary rainforest left. Everything you see here is secondary forest. Thousands of plant and animal species, including the orangutan, can live in them. Here in central Kalimantan alone a single company, called Wilmar, has been given a concession for almost 300,000 hectares and now has the legal right to chop down the entire forest. They've already cleared half of it."
From atop a wooden watchtower we looked out over barren terrain: not a single forest tree as far as the eye could see, just kilometer-long rows of freshly planted oil palm saplings. Here and there between the neat rows we noticed the charred remains of a tree trunk. This was Nordin's homeland: "Take a look around you -- how can something like this be sustainable? The WWF shares the blame for the annihilation of our rainforests."Young oil palms with burning rainforest on a Wilmar plantation, 2011
No legislation, no local resistance, no international protest has succeeded in stopping the advance of the palm oil companies on Indonesia and Malaysia. Great apes and other animals that don't flee the slash-and-burn deforestation operations in time go up in flames along with their forest homes. Many of these forests grow on moorland, and when the forest is burnt down the peat layer, which can be up to 12 meters thick, burns along with it. Thus Indonesia now has the dubious distinction of being one of the world's biggest CO2 polluters. But despite its dirty origins, biofuel from palm oil is still considered a "climate-friendly" energy source, because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) doesn't factor the greenhouse gases emitted during production of the product into the calculation -- in other words, the ecological books are cooked.
Nordin, a man of few words, is a Dayak: one of the indigenous peoples of Borneo. His ancestors were cannibals, which he sometimes reminded me of when he got tired of all my questions. We drove on through the plantations, our jeep swallowed up in dust clouds on the endless red sandy roads. How was it possible that we didn't sink down into the moorland peat? Nordin stopped and showed me how the plantation roadways are made: the remains of the massacred rainforest are laid down like planks, covered with sand, and: hey, presto! A road. The view from the jeep was fatiguing: nothing but oil palms, rows and rows, standing at attention like a silent army.
Machetes are used to chop off the red palm fruits, which lay in huge piles along the roadside. Harvesting them is a laborious business, but it pays off, because palm oil fetches a good price on the global commodities market. Palm oil is an ingredient in thousands of consumer household goods, from soaps, cosmetics and detergents to margarine and sweets. But since Europeans have been sold on the idea of palm oil as a "renewable" fuel for vehicles and power plants, the pressure on Indonesia's forests has increased exponentially. The little red fruits have an impressive energy yield -- ten times as high as the competition: the soy bean.Nothing creeps, crawls, buzzes and bites at all anymore in the fields of pristine palm rows. Universal herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and insecticides have eliminated all other plant and animal life.
Confronted with these images I asked myself how on earth the WWF could possibly call this industrial monoculture "sustainable". Nordin had no idea either.Companies like Wilmar International are so big that they have the power to just bulldoze over anything that stands in the way of their growth. The corporation, headquartered in Singapore, has 90,000 employees on the payroll. US industrial agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the world's largest producer of soy, maize, wheat and cocoa, is the majority shareholder in the company. Wilmar destroys more rainforest in Asia than anyone else.
And yet, in 2007 the WWF signed a fixed-term contract to provide the company with pro-bono consultation until 2009. In the words of WWF representative Amalia Prameswari, this was done in the hope of getting Wilmar to "improve" its behavior. According to Ms. Prameswari, the WWF wanted to convince the company to produce only "good palm oil".In the Fairytale Forest
We had met up with Amalia Prameswari
before our journey to the dark heart of Borneo's palm oil industry. Arriving for our appointment at WWF Indonesia headquarters in Jakarta's elegant business district, the young woman introduced herself as the Palm Oil Officer responsible for the collaboration with the palm oil companies. She was not overjoyed with the interview; she found the questions too "political"
. One of the directors should actually have fielded our questions, but they had all made themselves scarce. Amalia made a valiant effort to praise the positive aspects of the "dialogue": "We give assistance to the companies in how they can implement sustainable activities in their plantations. We also provide training in the implementation of better management practices. We want to mainstream the certification of palm oil sustainability." 
She was sincerely convinced that Wilmar "with the help of the WWF" was making "good progress on the way to sustainable palm oil production". How would she define that? "Wilmar has made a commitment to us to preserve the especially high conservation-value areas. That's a big success of the WWF."
Amalia Prameswari must have registered a certain amount of skepticism in our expressions and encouraged us to: "Take a look at it for yourselves."
That was an offer we weren't about to refuse. We took off in Nordin's jeep, driving for hours on the monotonous dusty roads that cut through the plantations like grid lines. Without GPS we would have soon lost all sense of direction. The concessions that Wilmar had secured there, in the heart of Borneo, cover an area over 90 kilometers long about 30 kilometers wide -- 271,000 hectares in total. At the time of our visit, almost half of that had already been cleared and planted with oil palms. Thanks to the efforts of the WWF, Amalia Prameswari had told us in parting, 12,000 hectares had been saved from destruction -- a whopping 9.86 percent of the concession that had thus far been exploited.
The sections considered especially worthy of protection have been dubbed High Conservation Value (HCV) Areas. In its 2007 accord with the WWF Wilmar had originally agreed to preserve 17,990 hectares of its concession; that's 14.76 percent. A scant year later the company had already made short work of a full third of the promised conservation area. At a joint meeting with the WWF on November 10th, 2008 Wilmar openly admitted the fact.  As a result of that round of negotiations the Malaysian office of the global consultancy firm MEC submitted a "revised" recommendation to the palm oil multinational. I took a good look at the report, compiled in 2009: half of the so-called HCV areas, which the WWF was convinced had not been cleared subsequent to the original agreement, turned out to be swampland with very high water levels -- not really suitable for oil palm plantations anyway. The forests where the indigenous locals live and farm, which don't even belong to Wilmar, had been classed among the HCV areas, as had the lakes, the rivers and the already legally-protected floodplains. Canals used to irrigate peat moors had also been lumped into this key statistic.  According to the criteria laid down by the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil it is perfectly permissible to include all these areas in the HCV total.All just smoke and mirrors, as far as Nordin was concerned.
Many of the HCV areas listed, he said, were just "scrub", with no value for biodiversity. He gave me a map that he had gotten from the project office of Wilmar itself. There is no date on it, but it's most likely from 2008. The map shows the entire concession area, within which Wilmar had designated only three distinct contiguous sections of forest as "conservation areas": 2,752 hectares along the Pukun River; 2,205 hectares along the Kapuk River; and 196 hectares along the Seranau Kiri.  That's a total of 5,153 hectares. All three of the forest areas are river floodplains, which enjoy legal protection in Indonesia anyway.
Based on his own on-site observations in this terrain, Nordin believes the Wilmar data is realistic. The WWF, on the other hand, presents satellite images as evidence that their cooperation partner Wilmar had, in fact conserved 13,000 hectares of valuable area.
We were driving through the newly laid out plantation Rimba Harapan Sakti when we were stopped by a Wilmar security jeep. The security officer wanted to know what we were doing there. I asked him where we could find the nearest WWF conservation area. His heavy attitude lightened up and, with a bright smile, he pointed us northwards. A short time later a patch of forest saved from the clearance flames appeared before us in the steamy mists of a recent tropical rain shower. It was like a fata morgana rising up behind a mountain of seedlings, construction machinery, and towering mounds of the root balls of upturned tropical trees.
A Fata Morgana (Italian: [ˈfaːta morˈɡaːna]) is an unusual and complex form of superior mirage that is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon. It is the Italian name for the Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay, from a belief that these mirages, often seen in the Strait of Messina, were fairy castles in the air or false land created by her witchcraft to lure sailors to their deaths. Although the term Fata Morgana is sometimes applied to other, more common kinds of mirages, the true Fata Morgana is not the same as an ordinary superior mirage, nor is it the same as an inferior mirage.
Fata Morgana mirages significantly distort the object or objects on which they are based, often such that the object is completely unrecognizable. A Fata Morgana can be seen on land or at sea, in polar regions or in deserts. This kind of mirage can involve almost any kind of distant object, including boats, islands and the coastline.
A Fata Morgana is often rapidly changing. The mirage comprises several inverted (upside down) and erect (right side up) images that are stacked on top of one another. Fata Morgana mirages also show alternating compressed and stretched zones.
This optical phenomenon occurs because rays of light are bent when they pass through air layers of different temperatures in a steep thermal inversion where an atmospheric duct has formed. (A thermal inversion is an atmospheric condition where warmer air exists in a well-defined layer above a layer of significantly cooler air. This temperature inversion is the opposite of what is normally the case; air is usually warmer close to the surface, and cooler higher up.)
In calm weather, a layer of significantly warmer air can rest over colder dense air, forming an atmospheric duct which acts like a refracting lens, producing a series of both inverted and erect images. A Fata Morgana requires a duct to be present; thermal inversion alone is not enough to produce this kind of mirage. While a thermal inversion often takes place without there being an atmospheric duct, an atmospheric duct cannot exist without there first being a thermal inversion.
-- Fata Morgana (mirage), by Wikipedia
Nordin had surveyed the area a few months earlier: it couldn't have been much more than 80 hectares, i.e. about 900 by 900 meters. You could walk the forest in twenty minutes. It looked plucked and miserable. This was not how I had pictured "high value" rainforest. What we had here was quite obviously the secondary forest that had grown back after the clearance twenty years ago. As such, it was of no "higher value" than the thousands of hectares of surrounding forest that had been slashed and burned just a few months earlier.
A small wooden sign confirmed our suspicions. It read: High Conservation Value Area. Below that, a warning notice stated that it was prohibited to hunt or plant agricultural crops in the forest, and indeed even to enter it.Suddenly we looked up to see an orangutan at the top of a tree. He looked emaciated as he stared out across the barren land.
Almost the exact forlorn look as his cousin from the WWF commercial. All he could see was a parched, brown wasteland; his little patch of remaining forest was an isolated biotope in a sea of oil palms. Would he be able to survive here? Nordin shook his head: "According to our last survey there are only two orangutans left living here. They don't stand a chance; they're caught in a trap here. Primate researchers say that an orangutan family needs about 10,000 hectares to be able to find enough food and to procreate. There aren't even enough fruit trees in this forest for two apes."
A few plantation workers came by on bicycles. They stopped, knowing immediately what we were after: Europeans were always interested in the human-like great apes, but seldom in humans. The men were friendly and forthcoming, nonetheless: yes, they knew the orangutans, but they would soon starve to death. In desperation the apes had been going into the plantations and "stealing" oil palm fruit or pulling up the palm saplings.
I asked what the repercussions were. The workers laughed, then one of them said quietly: "The company protects its property." Nordin pursued the point until the man finally stated what we all knew already: "The company hires hunters to shoot them. They're going to die -- one way or the other."We wanted to know if the WWF was doing anything to protect the last two orangutans in the forest. The men gave us a blank look: "We've never seen any of their people around here."
Nordin explained: "The WWF doesn't have any orangutan projects in Indonesia; it doesn't run any rescue centers where the animals could find shelter."Palm oil fruits
Responding to our query, Martina Fleckenstein, Director of EU Policy, Agriculture & Sustainable Biomass of WWF Germany, confirmed that the WWF does not, in fact, maintain a single orangutan rescue station.  However, she was at pains to stress that the WWF was involved in rehabilitating forest areas in Sabangau National Park and elsewhere, and was thus indirectly also creating new habitats for the orangutans. The trouble with that is: most orangutans don't live in the country's few national parks; they live in the secondary forests that are currently disappearing in quick succession. According to surveys conducted by the Indonesian Greenomics Institute, six out of nine orangutan habitats in the new Wilmar plantation areas have already been destroyed.  Would the company still receive the coveted certification from the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil? Nordin had to laugh: "Nothing is easier than that -- everyone gets it."
We asked the workers what they thought of their employer Wilmar. The cheerful laughter went silent. A few of them cast anxious sideward glances; one of them said what he really thought: "I'm a Dayak, from around here. My family used to have land. We lived from its many fruits; everything grew there in abundance. We were able to sell a large part of the harvest at market. Now everything has been destroyed. Even if you were to pull up all of the oil palms again, it would be useless. The soil is contaminated, the earth infertile. It would take decades before anything could grow here again."WWF campaignIn the distance we saw dark brown smoke clouds. When we got closer we saw that the forest was going up in flames. It was rainforest that the WWF and Wilmar had also declared to be "high value" and thus should have been protected. Apparently the company was not even sticking to the modest promises it had made to the WWF.Greenwashing
The WWF reacts sensitively to criticism of its close relationship with the palm oil industry. The national government and not they had determined the land use designations, after all. And if the companies had been granted concessions, their rainforest clearance activities were legal. Furthermore, Indonesia had a right to "economic development". No one could put a stop to the advance of industrial monocultures, the WWF argues, but by maintaining a dialogue with the companies one could enforce "better" management decisions. Pursuing this strategy, the WWF joined forces in 2004 with the multinational food giant Unilever, inviting the key corporate industrial players -- producers and traders -- to their Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
The organization is headquartered in Zurich. In the meantime over 500 companies -- producers, traders, and financiers -- have signed on as fee-paying members of the RSPO. The list includes such luminaries as Bayer, Cargill, DuPont, Henkel, Mitsubishi, Nestle, Shell, ADM, IKEA, Unilever, Rabobank, HSBC Bank and the energy giant RWE. All of them are on board because the "sustainable" label spells profit. Not only that, but since the EU Renewable Energy Act came into effect in 2010, recognized "sustainability" certification has been a prerequisite for selling palm oil on the European biofuel market.
The WWF is a member of the RSPO management board and has worked together with its corporate partners from the sector to develop international standards. Whoever fulfills them is granted the sought after seal of sustainability. Nordin says the RSPO certificate can't be taken seriously. His organization, Friends of the Earth, ceased to participate in the Round Table soon after its founding -- ditto Greenpeace. "You can't just go along with such a clear-cut case of fraudulent labeling," said Nordin. "There is no such thing as sustainable monoculture -- because it gives the forest no chance of regenerating itself; except for a few last remnants, the forest is simply destroyed."Nordin cited the brief list of RSPO fundamentals; a collection of feel-good no-brainers: slavery and child labor are forbidden; pesticides and other chemicals must be stored "appropriately". But the clearance of rainforests is allowed to continue, as long as it doesn't affect "primary rainforests". No real hindrance for the companies, because that still leaves about 9 million hectares that were cleared before the agreement took effect in 2005 -- a precautionary measure, so to speak.
Companies that go in now to clear these same areas can still get sustainability certification, no problem. But Nordin believes, based on experience, that even the actual primordial rainforest isn't safe from the chainsaws: "Even companies that violate RSPO standards, for example by clearing primary forest areas, get their certificate." The law of the jungle truly applies here. There is no independent oversight authority to ensure that the companies comply with the standards, which are not legally binding but simply a voluntary commitment made by industry.
We wanted to visit a plantation that was in the process of being certified. On the way there Nordin told us about a private conversation he had once had with a palm oil company Sustainability Manager: "I asked him if he could show me the difference between a sustainable plantation and a normal one. He just said: what difference?"
We drove about 20 kilometers to our destination: the Kerry Sawit plantation. It, too, belongs to Wilmar International Limited. There we saw full-grown oil palms heavy with dense clusters of oil fruit. The trees require five years of growth before the fruit can be harvested for the first time -- a long time to wait for a company itching to turn a profit with the oil. At the time, the Kerry Sawit plantation was in the middle of the certification procedure. The German Technical Inspection Association, TUV Rheinland, does the technical evaluations. It's a good contract: a single certification costs around 70,000 dollars. Only big multinational corporations can afford to play ball; small local producers are thus virtually locked out of the "certified sustainable palm oil" market.
As soon as we jumped out of the jeep we had to hold our noses. The biting stench of untreated wastewater from an oil mill was overwhelming. The effluent runs through open trenches and then sinks directly into the ground, and has also contaminated the nearby river.
The plantation would most likely receive the green seal of approval nonetheless; it seems that Indonesian law is blind when it comes to a partner as mighty as Wilmar.
Nordin, sitting looking lost and forlorn near a toxic green effluent lake, said: "What is the WWF thinking? This cannot possibly be sustainable. Nothing grows here at all anymore. There is no biodiversity in the plantations; everything is dead. Rats are the only animals left here. The WWF greenwashes the environmental crimes of industry -- and even takes money for doing it."The WWF as a Business ModelDuring our inspection of the plantation we came upon a chemicals canister labeled: Paraquat. What was the toxic substance doing there? Paraquat has achieved notoriety as one of the most dangerous herbicides on earth and has been banned in Europe via a decision of the European Court of Justice. Even a minuscule amount of the Swiss-made product is deadly, and its use is prohibited in Switzerland as well. Thousands of plantation workers across the globe have already died or suffer severe long-term health damage from inhaling the Paraquat fumes. Because of this fallout even the big banana producers Chiquita and Dole now prohibit the use of the herbicide on their plantations. But was it allowed here? On a "sustainable" palm oil plantation?
According to the standards set by the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil, use of poisonous substances should be reduced on the plantations. The document states: "The use of herbicides and pesticides must not endanger human beings or the environment." Yet Paraquat use is permitted, and the Swiss company Syngenta that produces it is a paying member of the Round Table and an official partner of the WWF. Coincidence?
In June 2011 a concerned contributor to a WWF online discussion forum asked why the WWF wasn't using the Round Table to push for a ban on Paraquat. The answer from the central office of WWF Germany speaks for itself: "Palm oil producers who are members of the RSPO need a plan to show them how they can reduce, or even eliminate, the use of such substances ... Furthermore, it has to be said that Paraquat is not the core business of the WWF at the RSPO. We've focused our attention on the extremely critical issue of deforestation." What this statement implies, of course, is that human rights are not the "core business" of the WWF either.
Germany-based global detergent giant Henkel is another member of the Round Table whose membership fees have already paid off: when the company launched its new product line Terra Activ, which was on the market from 2008 to 2014, it prominently bore the green palm label. The target group was conscientious consumers who want to do something to help the rainforest, and are prepared to pay a few cents more to do so. In addition to the green palm "seal of sustainability" on the label of the new cleaning products, concerned customers were given the reassuring information: "TerraActiv unites powerful strength and nature in a formula based on renewable raw materials, for shiny clean surfaces. Today's way to clean. Term Activ supports RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil production ... "
The palm oil industry is not only busy destroying the last major rainforest areas in Indonesia; in Africa, as well as Central and South America, immense tracts of land are being bought up to expand the booming business with the precious vegetable oil. The more biofuel is used in the Northern Hemisphere, the better the climate results presented by European governments will look -- at least on paper. The countries of the earth's Southern Hemisphere pay the high price of this eco-scam. For these vast regions the upswing in the bioenergy sector not only spells the loss of arable land for food crops, it also means the death of local smallholder farming and the entire culture that goes with it.
Again and again WWF staff assured me that the organization was only involved in order to prevent "even worse things" from happening. Nordin dismisses this argument; it just doesn't hold water: The WWF is an integral part of the whole. 'The RSPO's sustainability swindle wouldn't even work without the WWF -- they're what gives the whole thing credibility. It's a nasty business."
The PR buzzwords on the Henkel website give credence to the Indonesian activist's statement: "Henkel, together with the WWF, is thus supporting the sustainable production of palm and palm-kernel oil. In this way the company is making a valuable contribution to protecting the rainforest." That sounds like music to conscientious consumer ears, but the moving strains of this green hymn easily distract attention from a discordant fact: the rainforest that Henkel is ostensibly helping to protect must first be completely destroyed. Only then can the land where it had stood be used for palm oil production ennobled with the "sustainable" label.
The Henkel website also states that since 2003 the company has "supported the WWF in its campaign for the Indonesian rainforest". The WWF has come up with its own inventive way of rewarding the "support"; with an international competition for the best palm oil purchaser. In 2011 Henkel scored nine out of nine possible points on the WWF "Buyers' Scorecard" -- a world-class result. So both backs get scratched.
An alliance with the WWF offers corporations like Henkel a cost-effective method of greenwashing their business activities and public image. This organized use of sustainability certification as a currency for selling indulgences has disastrous consequences: the system actually helps big agribusiness to avoid changing its behavior. As long as consumers and politicians in Europe and the USA continue to fall for the fraudulent labeling, the industrial players will have a green light to keep speeding ahead on the road to ecological ruin.A Night in Sembuluh
From time to time we crossed paths with a transport truck laden with red oil fruit on its way to the next oil mill. Every few kilometers we passed a settlement of the low barracks that house the plantation workers. At the entrance to one of these camps we discovered a wooden plaque bearing the eight "guiding principles" defined by the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil:
l. Commitment to transparency
2. Compliance with applicable laws and regulations
3. Commitment to long-term economic and financial viability
4. Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers
5. Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity
6. Responsible consideration of employees, smallholders and other individuals and communities affected by growers and mills
7. Responsible development of new plantings
8. Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity
Nordin said he found some of the RSPO fundamentals quite sensible: "In the implementation provisions of the sixth principle it says, for example, that the land rights of the local population must be respected. That's good. Unfortunately it doesn't work in practice, because the Indonesian state is not actually based on the rule of law. The WWF chooses to ignore our political reality and in this way dodges its own responsibility." Suddenly a Wilmar security vehicle appeared behind us and Nordin stepped on the gas. The whole area is private company property.
At nightfall we arrived at the village Sembuluh by a lake of the same name. Many of the villagers live in traditional lakeshore houses on stilts. Some of the fishermen were still out on their boats; everywhere along the wooden piers at water's edge people were crouched down washing cloth or showering themselves with river water from a bucket -- until the call of the muezzin put a halt to these mundane activities: the entire population of Sembuluh is Muslim.
Until three years before our visit most of the villagers had been farmers, cultivating the traditional forest crops of the Dayak: rattan for furniture, and rubber trees. The profits were good because, despite competition from synthetics, high-quality condoms and chewing gum are still made of natural caoutchouc. Between the trees of these staple crops the smallholders had planted rice and fruit trees: durian, mango and banana. A mixed forest habitat in which the animals also felt at home; a truly sustainable economy that provided a good living for the local population.
The forest smallholdings now exist only in the memory of the farmers; their forest gardens have long since been bulldozed away. In Indonesia, forest per se belongs to the state. As a rule, farmers have only usage rights. But some of them were in possession of legitimate title deeds. The corporation would have to buy the land from such individuals. In the expectation of sudden wealth, many of the inhabitants of Sembuluh had, in fact, sold up. They now cruised the main street of the village in their newly bought motor scooters, or rode them to work each morning at one of the plantations that now surround the village.
Hadid, who kindly allowed us to spend the night in his attic, had not sold. As we sat eating dinner on the floor of his kitchen he explained why: "The money is soon spent and the company only employs people until the age of 45. What do they do after that? It was stupid to sell." Hadid tends to his forest small holding daily. A few of the farmers who had sold their land were now working for him. His wife runs the village hardware store. Hadid is a wealthy and respected man; people here heed his word.
That evening his house was full of local farmers, gathered to plan a protest activity. By that time there were three oil mills on the lakeshore, contaminating the lake with their effluent. The farmers feared that the fish would all die. Fishing was one of their last remaining sources of income, and the most important source of protein for the villagers.
Nordin followed the discussion while typing the first sentences of a petition into Hadid's computer. The plan was for all to travel to the provincial capital the following Monday. There they would make a personal appeal to the Governor to stop construction of a fourth oil mill due to be built near the lake.
Just as the discussion had reached fever pitch Nordin's cell phone beeped: a text message from an anonymous caller: "We know you're in Sembuluh. Get lost now, or we'll get rid of you once and for all. We can find you anywhere. The governor and the police are on our side." Nordin is highly unpopular with the corporations: he foments unrest among the farmers and puts a damper on business. He closed the SMS screen with a shrug; it wasn't the first death threat he had received.
Baktaran, a gaunt farmer in his mid-forties, showed me the deed to a parcel of forestland: five hectares that had belonged to his parents before him. "But the company bribed the officials and I lost everything." Had he just accepted his fate? In lieu of an answer he asked if I would go with him early the next morning to see his forest.
At sunrise we started off on foot into the underbrush. Baktaran cleared the way ahead of us with his machete. Suddenly he stopped and said abruptly: "Here we are. This is my garden." But all we saw was scrub and in it oil palms about 1.5 meters tall. "They came one morning with bulldozers and destroyed my forest. There was a huge rubber tree right here -- I had inherited it from my father. I went to the Wilmar administration office to complain -- they just threw me out." Between the palms Baktaran had erected a little ramshackle hut out of wood and palm fronds; a symbolic demonstration of his claim to ownership: "I've kept coming back here, almost every day, for five years now. Once, the company sent the military to get rid of me, but I won't give up."
Baktaran then marched over to the next oil palm and chopped it down with a few precision whacks of his machete. That was destruction of company property -- a crime under Indonesian law. Other farmers were currently in prison for doing the same thing, more than 300 of them throughout the country.
A few weeks after our interview with Baktaran I received word that after a five-year legal battle the farmer had received justice. Wilmar had lost the case and would have to return the land to its rightful owner -- oil palms and all. A rare triumph of the rule of law.The Palm Oil War
Amalia Prameswari, the WWF palm oil functionary we had met with in Jakarta, defended herself against the accusation of collusion with companies engaged in criminal activities. She admitted that even a modern company like Wilmar didn't always act properly, but at least it had promised the WWF to protect the rainforest "as far as possible":
"There is enough degraded land in Indonesia to treble palm oil production without having to destroy any more rainforest." Prameswari quoted a statistic to back up her statement: five to seven million hectares lay fallow in Indonesia. But where were these enormous tracts of land?
On our travels throughout the country we had not seen a single hectare that was not being exploited somehow by someone. The young WWF official attempted a careful retraction: "It's a tough challenge. Most of the time the land belongs to someone, and then conflict occur. These have to be resolved through mutual agreement. We reject illegal and one-sided initiatives where people are displaced. The Roundtable wants amicable solutions."Imprisoned farmer in Sumatra
We showed her film footage from a provincial prison in Sumatra: 16 farmers cooped up in a tiny cell like battery hens. They were all from Jambi Province and had been accused of stealing oil fruit from the land that had belonged to them for decades. The men looked exhausted as they stood behind the bars asking for help. One of them said: "Who'll feed my children now? Help us; we're desperate. They're never going to let us out of here."
Amalia Prameswari was visibly moved by the farmer's words. She swallowed hard: "Well, me personally, I have not heard about this case until today. It would be a disappointment, of course, if Wilmar has really let such a thing happen. On the other hand, they also have other sustainability practices in other areas of Indonesia." Apparently, Wilmar was not always Wilmar. As if trying hard to reassure herself, she added: "The WWF only supports good bioenergy."
This, however, was no comfort to the captive farmers, all members of the Suku Anak Dalam tribe. A few months after the prison interview was recorded the tribe's conflict with Wilmar had escalated, climaxing in an orgy of violence: on August 15th, 2011 Wilmar subsidiary PT Asiatic Persada called in paramilitary units to dispel the rebellious inhabitants of Sungai Buayan village, located in the middle of the company's palm oil plantation. Three hundred armed militiamen surrounded the settlement and opened fire on the unarmed inhabitants, who fled in panic. The villagers had ensconced themselves there in the firm belief it was their land -- Wilmar had robbed them of it 9 years earlier.
Ida, a mother of four, had been cooking at the stove when the shots rang out: "I was making rice. To protect my children I threw the rice at the soldiers. Several people collapsed from gunshot wounds and had to be operated on. After the attack, the soldiers came with heavy vehicles and flattened our huts. They destroyed everything we had: our food reserves, our clothing. We don't know how we'll survive now."
The petite, friendly woman from the rainforest told me this story on board a little passenger boat as it tugged up the Weser River in the northern German town of Brake. Four months had past since the raid on her village, and the tribe had sent Ida, her husband Bidin and their youngest son Agung off to faraway Europe to tell the people here about the price the indigenous forest dwellers are being forced to pay for the palm oil used in European industries. In a last ditch attempt to prevent the delegation from travelling to Europe, Wilmar had offered to build replacement housing for the villagers, in a worker's settlement off the plantation grounds. "What would we do there? We don't want handouts; we want our land back." Nothing productive had come of negotiations with Wilmar, just "empty promises" -- and two sacks of rice. Company managers had dropped them off in her village just before Christmas: two sacks for 700 people.
Our boat, with the victims of the violent raid in Sumatra on board, was nearing the industrial port of Brake, the site of a modern Wilmar-run vegetable oil refinery. It pumps out 2,500 tons of refined oil a day for use in margarine, cosmetics and cleaning products. The logo of the global concern could be seen from a distance at the top of the main building. Ida couldn't read the sign -- she's illiterate. Her husband Bidin spelled out the name and shook with rage: "That's the same name as on the sign in front of our village -- right in the middle of our forest, on the land of our ancestors. And then it says: 'This land is the property of Wilmar -- no trespassing!'" He looked up at the smoke billowing out of the refinery chimney and then finished his thought: "And all of that just to make margarine here out of our forest."
The emaciated yet tough, strong-willed man had begun to contemplate the strange ways of globalization on our drive to the river through the Weser marshlands. On both sides of the road he saw lush meadows and the steam of cow dung rising from the big low stalls into the cold December air. "Why", Bidin had asked me, "don't you just eat butter, when there are so many cows here? Why do have to eat margarine even though it's destroying our lives?"
Bidin had never before left his forest home. He shivered with cold on our boat ride across the wind-whipped Weser. What tormented him most was the thought of his children's future: "They can't play outdoors any more; the brown soup with all the chemicals flows everywhere, throughout the plantation. The children get sick or die just by touching something. I can no longer show them how to climb a rubber tree or how to make rattan furniture. We're losing the knowledge that we've gathered over centuries."Ida with child and husband Bidin on a boat trip
The plantation that had been erected on Bidin's tribal lands would soon receive sustainability certification. But that won't bring his forest back. Will the margarine taste better to us with "from sustainable production" on the label?