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Down to Earth No. 68, February 2006

The borders megaproject

The government is pressing ahead with plans to create a huge plantation zone along the Indonesia-Malaysia border, despite concerns raised by Indonesian and international NGOs and forest researchers and donors.

Indonesian NGO Greenomics revealed in February that East Kalimantan has allocated 215,000ha in three districts to be cleared as part of the plantation. The area includes 17,000ha of government-funded community plantations. West Kalimantan has not made its plans public.

The plantations, which will cover 1.8 million hectares in total, are expected to require an investment of around Rp6.45 trillion (about US$645 million), 98 percent of which would be funded by private investors.

Conservation organisations fear that the megaplantation will seriously affect at least two national parks along the length of the border with Malaysia - Betung Kerihun in West Kalimantan and Kayan Mentarang in East Kalimantan. WWF had launched its 'Heart of Borneo' campaign to protect a 22 million ha area straddling the border several months before the plantation project was announced last year.

At a major workshop on the 'Heart of Borneo' held in December in Jakarta, Forestry minister Kaban announced that he would not allow any conversion of forests for the plantation scheme along the border. Instead, investors would be required to use deforested land, replanting 40% with commercial crops - including oil palm - and reforesting the rest. Concession rights would be granted for 25-35 years after which the companies would have to restore the areas used for plantations.

Agriculture minister, Anton Apriyantono, also told the press in early February that the government would use 'abandoned land' to set up palm oil plantations along the Kalimantan border. "There is nearly 2 million hectares of such land, and this will be our first priority," he said. Indigenous organisations in West Kalimantan are worried that government talk of 1.5 million ha of 'inactive land' potentially available for the oil palm, includes large tracts of adat (customary) land left fallow as part of traditional cultivation schemes.

The rugged hills which run along much the Kalimantan border are too steep or high for oil palm. A CIFOR study showed that 200 sites in the Malinau district of East Kalimantan are not suitable for oil palm cultivation. Large amounts of expensive infrastructure, in the form of roads, would also be needed to access this remote area. A Greenomics study suggests that the real motive for the project to investors could be the timber resulting from land clearance, worth an estimated Rp237.8 trillion (US$23.78bn). Another factor driving the megaproject is the prospect of massive palm oil supplies for biofuel, in the wake of public anger over rising fuel prices.

(Sources: Jakarta Post 1/Dec/05, 9/Dec/05, 28/Dec/05; Bisnis Indonesia 7/Feb/06)

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