Biodiesel Expansion Could Worsen Deforestation in Indonesia

An area cleared for an oil palm plantation in Kalimantan, Indonesia in 2014.

An area cleared for an oil palm plantation in Kalimantan, Indonesia in 2014. Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

The Indonesian government has announced a major expansion of a program to make biodiesel out of palm oil, a move that officials say would necessitate planting 37 million acres of new palm oil plantations — an area one-fifth the size of Borneo.

Scientists and environmentalists argue that such a target could lead to large-scale deforestation in a country whose tropical forests have already been ravaged by decades of forest-clearing for oil palm plantations and timber harvesting. The government says that expanding the nation’s biodiesel production will help wean the country off foreign oil, but critics charge that destroying carbon-rich forests to plant oil palm for fuel is folly.

“The biodiesel program is clearly not a solution for the country’s fiscal state and will worsen the implementation of Indonesia’s climate commitment because it is oriented toward deforestation and new land clearing in forest areas,” Arkian Suryadarma, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, told Mongabay. “That’s why it’s very wrong if biodiesel is categorized as a renewable energy.”

Biodiesel blends in Indonesia today contain 30 percent palm oil. By 2025, the government hopes to increase that blend to 50 percent palm oil and 50 percent gasoline. Critics of the government’s plan say that while the palm oil biodiesel program was initially meant to convert excess palm oil production into biodiesel, the government targets are now actually driving a major expansion of oil palm plantations.