Sunday, 28 July 2013

Haze, Slash&burn and palm oil plantations in Indonesia

I have posted a number of times on the haze issue that afflicts Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore on an annual basis (search on "haze" for 3 previous posts).  I recently discussed this subject with a senior executive from a major plantation company (lets call him Mazlan). This is how he described the situation in Sumatra to me (please excuse any over-simplification - I'm sure there may be many variations to the theme):

Major international palm oil plantation companies negotiate access to land (in Sumatra) with both state and federal authorities in Indonesia. They are granted initial 3-year concessions (I am not sure what criteria must be met in this period - but I assume it would relate to negotiating final agreements with all affected parties) prior to the major financial commitment involved in establishing the plantation and its required infrastructure.

A large plantation company will invariably be looking for large contiguous blocks of land under a concession but maybe only 50% of this land will be suitable for plantation conversion. The balance may be protected or physically unsuitable or under the control of existing small holders or villagers.  I have heard that land tenure and ownership is at the heart of the many problems associated with the rural poor in Indonesia. This issue was reinforced to me by Mazlan, who also claimed that many of these rural landless poor will seek to advantage themselves when major land deals are in progress by moving into the land concession blocks.

Mazlan points out that his company's practices strictly adhere to RSPO rules... there is no open burning on the land under their direct control. The burning is carried out by the existing land-holders, villagers or migrant poor. The plantation company has no powers or rights to enforce the 'no open burning' laws or rules. The people living within their concession areas can not be forcibly removed or controlled by the plantation company. This is the responsibility of the Indonesian government (be it local, regional or federal). I can not verify any of this but it does seem plausible.

I can easily imagine the difficulties faced by government authorities in trying to enforce any burning ban. I can also understand the position of the rural poor in trying to clear land quickly for planting, enhance their poor soil fertility with ash, retain claim over land by clearing or even to just high-lighting their remote, marginal existence by sending smoke signals to the urban wealthy.
I would like to offer up a long term solution (and no surprise, it has biochar at it heart)...

Nutrient management is one of the major cost components for a palm oil plantation. This is due to the inherently poor fertility of most tropical soils and the intensive extractive nature of plantation agriculture. Biochar offers the possibility for a revolution in nutrient use efficiency in tropical agriculture along with many other proven soil and water holding benefits. Some plantation companies are starting to take notice and have begun some small scale research trials (much more could and should be done).

Lets take a small leap of faith here and assume biochar can replace some of the mineral fertilizers that are regularly applied to the plantation palms. This gives biochar an economic value, creating the potential for local biochar production and its associated supply chain developing within and around the plantation. Biomass will be too valuable to just burn - it will become the feedstock for the plantation-driven local biochar production industry. Training and equipping local people to produce biochar is relatively simple but the incentive to work must be based on a real economic value of the product. Lets assume a biochar value similar to urea... say $US300/T.  One man with a simple 200L drum TLUD could earn $30/day? My list of the benefits...
  • Local communities
  1. Work, income and all of the poverty reduction, social cohesion and local development that comes with economic stability.
  2. Improved health - they are on the haze front line.
  3. Sustainable agricultural practices that come with biochar.
  • Plantation companies
  1. All the potential benefits that can come with biochar in the soil (economic and environmental)... reduced fertilizer requirements, improved crop productivity, improved water holding capacity, improved plant & soil health, reduced carbon footprint (from fertilizer transport, carbon sequestration, GHG emissions reductions), reduced nutrient & sediment erosion leading to better water quality. 
  2. A local biochar industry will help meet CSR and TBL (economic, social, environmental reporting) goals including carbon sequestration.
  3. Plantation biomass can be directed toward biochar at a later stage, after the costs, benefits & risks have been assessed. When large scale pyrolysis systems are integrated (CHP) into palm oil mills, many other benefits will flow to the plantation companies.
  • Regional governments (and us!)
  1. Haze reduction...
  2. economic growth
  3. carbon sequestration
Dr Christoph Steiner proposed a Slash&char alternative to the Slash&burn activities he studied in Brazil as part of his PhD thesis. His book may also offer some insights on biochar based solutions.

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