Saturday, October 27, 2007

Biofuel and it's Non-sustainable Impacts: A Case from West Papua

Where I live, the new buzzwords are all about the environment: biofuel, sustainability, eco-friendly, fair trade, etc. Some of these ideas are great, and are needed quite badly if we are to stop altering the planet as rapidly as we are. However, many have been co-opted by the usual consumer/business/money business and are really no better then the alternative they are replacing. One such example is that of biofuels.

Most people don't realize that as they jump from bandwagon to bandwagon in the environmental rhetoric, they are still having a giant impact on indigenous peoples around the world. This despite their best efforts to "save the environment" or the "native cultures" of the world by using biofuel instead of traditional oil and gas. One example that highlights the complexity of the situation, and the real need for people to stop consuming over just simply substituting one consumptive behavior (oil and gas) for another (biofuel), is that of oil palm in West Papua.

West Papua is a province of Western New Guinea and is home to numerous indigenous peoples who continue to fight for their traditional cultural lifeways in the face of increasing imperial and colonial forces. Recently, reports of military violence and an attack by traditional landowners on the personnel and property of Korean and Indonesian owned logging and oil palm plantation projects have surfaced. The Muyu indigenous tribe has clashed with these outsiders near the remote town of Asiki, 250 kilometers northwest of Australia's Torres Strait, over the development of oil palm plantations. These oil palm plantations are being developed in the traditional homeland of the Muyu and other indigenous peoples for use by consuming Western countries as a form of biofuel (not very eco- or human friendly after all).

The recent violence reported at the Korindo operation appears to be a result of longstanding disagreements over land rights between Korindo and local indigenous peoples including the Auyu, Mandobo, Marind, and Muyu groups. The conflict over the expansion of oil palms is largely driven by international demand for biofuel. Oil palm is the second largest traded vegetable crop, behind soy, and is used both to make bio-diesel and as a fuel to be burnt in power stations for the generation of electricity. The Indonesian government appears to be intent on a massive expansion in oil palm plantations to feed the consuming needs of Western nations, which will involve the destruction of millions of hectares of rainforest and the traditional lifeways of the indigenous people in the region.

The creation of oil palm plantations involves clear felling and burning the forest, which means destroying indigenous peoples' livelihood, homes, ancestral graves, and sacred sites in the process. Currently 5 million hectares of new oil palm plantations are planned or West Papua by 2012. The palm oil industry has already set up 6.5 million hectares of oil palm plantations across Sumatra and Borneo, but it is estimated that it is probably responsible for the destruction of 10 million hectares of rainforest.

The indigenous peoples' of these countries are at a loss. They can try and fend off the encroaching logging and oil palm companies, but for how long and with what? It is up to us, the consuming Western nations that are the driving force behind the oil palm and biofuels industry, to recognize that like many other "environmentally friendly" practices, this one has also been co-opted by big business. Ultimately, biofuel may be a good alternative to traditional oil and gas, but currently it is no better. The demand for biofuel in the form of palm oil is only going to get bigger, impacting thousands of indigenous peoples and their traditional lifeways. It is up to us, therefore, to do our part and make the informed decision. Perhaps the old-school methods of transportation really had something going; walking and biking don't pollute, burn calories, and let you enjoy the beautiful outdoors. Tomorrow, how about walking to work and taking note of the plants and animals that you are helping to save on your way? Could be good for you and for everyone else.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Agencies and Indigenous Peoples Work Together in Mexico: A Case from Chimalapas, Oaxaca

High in the mountains of the Chimalapas, the largest undisturbed cloud forest in all of Central America, life is teeming. From evergreen forests to dry shrub, the variety of habitats in this ecoregion attracts an amazing diversity of wildlife, including the northernmost range of the resplendent quetzal. The Chimalapas Montane Forests ecoregion is a mixture of mountains, plateaus, valleys, and cliffs. The mountains are oriented in an east-west direction and are dissected by many rivers that form deep canyons. Many indigenous peoples live and depend on this forests for their survival.

The Chimalapas montane forests are facing serious threats from logging and agricultural expansion. Many of these forests have almost vanished entirely. In 1998, forest fires burned almost 17,000 acres of this cloud forest. Logging is still extensive in much of the region, and plans for building a dam and a major highway threaten the largest fragments of undisturbed forests. Non-indigenous peoples continue to expand into the area, clearing forests for industrial development and agriculture, severely impacting the indigenous peoples of the region. Many other wildlife species could also share this same fate if the forests are not adequately protected.

To mitigate some of these impacts, in Chimalapas, Mexico, non-governmental actors have attempted to integrate indigenous people into the discourse and practices of the Western environmental movement. In a recent article, however, Molly Doane of the University of Illinois at Chicago argued that although the movement in Chimalapas drew from the well-developed symbolic toolkit of the environmental movement, it was not able to create a space for local indigenous people's concerns within the transnational agenda that was already well established and inflexible. Political ecology was the hinge of this movement: a political-economic analysis that validated traditional agrarian concerns in Chimalapas but included an environmentalist discourse legible to international funders.

By creating a new discourse about Chimalapas, environmentalists in the region helped to consolidate the region as a socially and politically defined place. Activists also attempted to spark new forms of cultural production, recasting "modern" agrarian or indigenous identities embedded in national campesino politics as deeply connected to nature. The lessened was learned, and environmentalists and activists soon realized that they had to incorporate the indigenous peoples concerns if any program was to succeed.

Recently, some of the ecological goals shared by conservationists and indigenous peoples in Chimalapas have, in fact, been realized. 13,000 hectares of lands in Colonia, Cuauhtemoc were returned to Santa Maria Chimalapa, and the World Wildlife Fund has a new large-scale project in the region for the 2003-2008 period that attempts to coordinate the efforts among a number of small NGO projects and government agencies in the interest of establishing a protected area of some kind. Let us just hope that they continue to involve, and remember, the indigenous peoples who depend on this land and its resources for cultural and individual survival.

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