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Est. April 5, 2002
June 30, 2016 - Issue 660

Combating Global Warming
Protecting Indigenous Peoples
Go Hand In Hand


"What can be done in the rich countries is
to enact laws that take into consideration
the destructive nature of palm oil production.
Rich governments could ban such products,
just as they ban products that are made
using slave labor or indentured labor."

It has become routine for rich nations to exploit poor nations that possess natural resources that the rich nations want and, to get those resources, the rich will do just about anything, no matter how destructive to the people, the land, or the political and social structure.

The negative influence of transnational corporations and the richer nations are felt around the globe, even when they are not directly involved in exploitation of a given resource at any given time. Never doubt that they are planning on it and their plans are very long range. To get the picture, one only has to consider the oil companies and their long lead-time in bringing the oil out of the ground and onto the world market. It takes years.

Same goes for the land grabs that are occurring in so many countries in South America, Africa, Asia, and other places. Corporations and nations are leasing or buying outright huge parcels of land to produce food for their own nation, leaving the people from whom the land was taken without the means to even subsist.

An important reason for taking large sections of land (measured usually in square miles) by foreign corporations and nations is for introduction of vast plantations of palm oil trees, the oil of which finds its way into manufactured foods around the world. To plant those millions of trees, the rainforests are clear-cut and, for many indigenous people, their livelihoods, way of life, and culture disappear along with the forests.

While there are many causes for deforestation of any country, one of the other primary reasons is the use of firewood for cooking and heat and the effort to keep up with the growing populations of the countries. And that’s not to mention the corruption of government officials that is accomplished by corporations or rich nations through offers of money and promises of wealth. The people usually are left out of any planning or benefit, even though it is their land that is taken and abused or destroyed.

So it is in Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, located off Africa’s east coast. It is also one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Madagascar is being deforested, inexorably, and at this time at an increasing pace, according to a recent report earlier this month by the New York Times Service, which highlighted the ever-increasing cutting of forests for the production of charcoal. City dwellers (and there are more and more of them every year, as climate change forces them to move out of the countryside) are using more charcoal rather than firewood, so it is one of the remaining ways to make a living in the rural areas, as climate change and drought diminish farming.

There are other ways to cook that could eliminate permanently the need to deforest entire regions for both firewood and charcoal. Willie Smits, who went to Indonesia three decades ago and eventually became an Indonesian citizen, has developed programs that: save the rainforests, reforests places that have been destroyed by fire and reckless logging, saves habitat for orangutans (and the forest apes, as well), and maybe most important, has developed the planting of sugar palms that provide the indigenous people with (ethanol) fuel and a sustainable product that brings income to the forest communities.

The miracle plant is the sugar palm, which grows under the canopy of the rainforest, thus it is not necessary to clear-cut the “lungs of the world” to plant unsustainable crops like palm oil. Once the sugar palm is in production, it produces volumes of sweet sap every day and will keep producing for years. From the sap, villagers make ethanol, which can replace the need for firewood or charcoal. Smits and his fellow villagers have developed a small “factory” for ethanol production that can be lowered into some of the more remote areas by helicopter and those who live there can process their sugar palm sap for their own use and take the surplus out on foot or other small conveyance. There is no need for destructive roads for trucks or other motorized vehicles and the people become more self-sufficient in the process. The rainforest is saved. An added benefit for the people and for the nation at large is that the sap is very sweet and can be processed for use as a sweetener, a much more sustainable way to produce the product than clear cutting for the growing of very wasteful sugar cane.

Smits and the organization of villagers and indigenous people (Masarang) also have developed a way to reforest apparently destroyed land and they are doing that on much larger areas than the relatively small 9,000 acres on which their experiment in sugar palm started. In the original part, there is an orangutan sanctuary that has been in operation for many years and all of the enterprises are accomplished by the people, including the experimental efforts to save rainforests and the great variety of wildlife that lives there.

According to the study by Masarang of the possibility of replicating their successful experiment with sugar palms, there is a wide band that circles the globe in which similar conditions of climate and weather exist to support the planting of sugar palms on several continents. Indigenous peoples in those areas could save their ancestral lands and, at the same time, produce a product sustainably that would provide them with a means to make a living from the outside, as well as provide their communities with a way to keep their culture intact, far into the future.

The message of Masarang has been brought to many countries through lectures by Smits, including TED talks. Smits also attended the Paris conference on global climate change in 2015 and was said to have been well received, but out of all that there has been little discussion of the methods and programs of Masarang among politicians or even among environmental organizations in the developed countries. It is likely that these interests believe that the power of transnational corporations is too much to counter.

It’s the money they spread liberally among the small elite in the poor countries, and the clear cutting of indigenous lands continues apace, for the planting of oil palms and other crops for export to the rich countries. Again, the people who are displaced are left bereft of their land and any benefit of the destructive operations. The answer that corporations give to justify the land grabs for oil palm plantations is that the oil in most manufactured foodstuffs is palm oil and the cheapest and easiest way to produce such oil is to commandeer the land and use the cheap labor of those who are displaced to bring the oil to the tables of the richer countries. There are many sources of food oil in the world that are produced without destroying the greatest carbon sinks on earth, the rainforests.

While many, especially those of corporate mind, might not agree that the rainforests should be saved, there are oil alternatives that would actually help to save the rainforests, one of them being soybeans. Yes, there are negatives in growing soy for oil (since most of the beans planted are genetically manipulated, at least in the U.S.), but whatever one’s view of GMOs, raising soy for oil, especially non-GMO seed, is the sensible alternative to destruction of the world’s rainforests.

Climate change is already at a dangerous stage and everything that can be done to protect the carbon sinks of the world needs to be done, right away. Peoples around the globe should be asking their governments why there is so little discussion of the amazing aspects of sugar palms and why their countries are not moving swiftly to replicate what Masarang is doing in Indonesia. What can be done in the rich countries is to enact laws that take into consideration the destructive nature of palm oil production. Rich governments could ban such products, just as they ban products that are made using slave labor or indentured labor. Environmental organizations in the rich countries need to take the lead, even though they may be burdened with mitigating the problems caused by rampant industrialization over many generations, they need to address rainforest destruction, as well.

Madagascar would appear to be within the band in which sugar palms would be very productive, saving people, communities, rainforests, wildlife, and all the while providing cleaner air everywhere, no matter where you breathe it. All those concerned about saving living cultures, wildlife, rainforests, and the planet itself should be demanding of their governments and their national environmental organizations to take immediate steps to bring the issue of sugar palms to the forefront of any discussion of climate change and rainforest protection. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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