Witness Unleashed

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In ideal circumstances — unvegetated land planted for the first time — this balancing out really happens. When corn grows, it soaks up carbon, and when it is consumed whether as food or fuel , it releases that carbon back into the air. But the analysis breaks down when faced with the reality of land use. Almost everywhere in the world, planting more corn or soy for biofuel would involve creating more farmland, which in turn would involve cutting down whatever was already growing on that land. And that would mean releasing a huge amount of carbon into the air, with nothing to balance the books.

Representative Henry A. But he knew that one of the most vexing aspects of global emissions reduction was the question of how to replace transportation fuels. It was hard enough to upgrade several thousand electrical power plants to draw on wind or solar or even nuclear power. That would take years. Waxman thought a biofuel requirement could be a turning point in climate legislation, a moment when Washington stopped pretending.

In addition to requiring carmakers to improve fuel standards, a longtime priority for Democrats, the bill updated and expanded renewable-fuel standards, requiring fuel producers to mix in soy, palm and other kinds of vegetable oil with diesel fuel and to use ethanol from corn and sugar in gasoline.

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The bill also set tough standards for how much cleaner, in terms of carbon, each of those categories of fuel had to become — 50 percent for diesel, 20 percent for gas — and empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to judge what qualified. The expected gains were enormous. The switch to biofuels, the E. The law had a profound effect. Biodiesel production in the United States would jump from million gallons in to more than 1. Imports of biodiesel to the United States surged from near zero to more than million gallons a month.

As fuel markets snatched up every ounce of domestic soy oil to meet the American fuel mandate, the food industry also replaced the soy it had used with something cheaper and just as good: palm oil, largely from Malaysia and Indonesia, which are the sources of nearly 90 percent of the global supply.

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But as Indonesian palm oil began to flood Western markets, that is exactly what began to happen. But he is no longer so hopeful. He is now also the chairman of the environmental organization Mighty Earth, which lobbies food and agriculture companies to deploy more climate-friendly production methods.

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In , he and other lawmakers were focused on the benefits of biofuels and the bridge they promised to even greener technologies. Now the soft-spoken Waxman is far more concerned about the other side of the equation. Palm-oil producers had been lobbying American lawmakers to introduce biofuel incentives for years, and they were well prepared for the moment when the incentives became law. Wilmar — the colossal Singaporean conglomerate that controls nearly half of the global palm-oil trade — announced in that it would quadruple its biodiesel production. They also announced that Indonesia would convert more than 13 million acres of additional forest to industrialized palm production.

It was as if in response to a law in China, the United States undertook a plan to convert every single acre of New Jersey to soybean crops, and then threw in all of Connecticut and New Hampshire. Much of the new development was focused on Borneo, where many villages were settled before there were nations, let alone land deeds. To create a legal basis for development, the Indonesian government established a commercial land-share system in the s. In theory, the system let villages sign over development rights in return for some part of the profit.

But in practice, many villagers said, companies often secured the permits they needed through some combination of intense lobbying, bribery and strong-arming, and the result was broken promises and missing payments. Villagers were often simply outmatched by their huge negotiating partners. Wilmar was already a powerhouse in , with operations in 23 countries on four continents, employing more than 60, people.

Within a few years, though, Salim had rebuilt his empire. Even before the boom, Gelambong told me, he saw promise in the new palm industry, and he decided to stake his own welfare to it. When the large companies began to expand their timber and palm-planting to Kalimantan, they brought roads, construction and an influx of goods.

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  6. They also offered jobs. By the end of , Gelambong was already two years into working with a wildcat palm-oil operation, overseeing the process of putting millions of palm-tree seedlings into the ground. The oligarchs had once brazenly plundered whole states, but Gelambong thought this time would be different. In the post-Suharto era, it was private business capitalizing on free markets, and the companies promised to share profits with the smallholders — the villagers — who gave up their land.

    To win access to protected ancestral lands, the corporations promised schools for local children and wages that far exceeded those from harvesting jackfruit and jalut timber.

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    The family built a fortune out of mining and timber, and Bumitama — which sells its palm to mills run by Wilmar and has direct distribution to the American and European markets — was its palm-oil subsidiary. As he gained access to more company documents, Gelambong said, he found new contracts where village elders had agreed to smaller and smaller shares of profit. In his role as liaison, Gelambong was also sometimes responsible for delivering the very gifts that local officials found so persuasive.

    Acquiring such a permit typically required hefty contributions to one or more local political campaigns. Gelambong said he handled the small stuff; payoffs to the police, military patrols and local chiefs.

    As the money flowed, so did the development. From to , palm concessions in Kalimantan more than tripled. Bumitama alone was planting roughly 37, acres of palm each year. Across Indonesia, trees were cut down at a rate of three acres every minute to make room. Soon, palm plantations extended from Kotawaringin in every direction. It was there that Gelambong took me to retrieve a box of papers he had acquired. Sifting through the files, he retrieved copies of three contracts the company presented to its banks.

    Each contained a list of signatures — purportedly those of hundreds of villagers, consenting to let the microfinance corporation control their land and represent their views to the bank. Gelambong pointed to the long rows of names. At least six of the signatures were from people who had died before the oil-palm companies arrived.

    Bumitama officials said that nothing about their deal in Kotawaringin was improper; the company had the consent of village representatives, and it had undergone due diligence from the banks. Promises had given way to despair, and he was humbled by the belief that he and others were suckered into giving up their only true assets. Now they were fighting simply for the right to take back a small sliver of land to farm for themselves.

    Timothy Searchinger spent a year researching cropland demand, and in February , just two months after Bush signed the biofuels mandate into law, he and eight co-authors published their findings in the journal Science. It was a rare coup for a layman — peer-reviewed scientific journals seldom take an interest in the work of activist lawyers — but Searchinger had done something important. He had tried to quantify how increasing the demand for biofuel would change land use. How was this possible?

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    A typical life-cycle analysis adds up just the carbon emissions involved in the chain of fuel production and use: the carbon produced by burning the fuel, the carbon spit out by the tractor in the field, the carbon produced by the fertilizer manufacturer and so on. What that analysis does not take into account, though, is that there is only so much land. Climate scientists quickly agreed on the general notion that land use was an important factor to take into account, but there the consensus ended. The numbers varied depending on who did the analysis using what model, and as the research evolved, few could agree on the scale of the problem.

    Predicting how people will use land can be challenging. Scientists use a suite of complex models to try to capture the nuance of interactions among commodity prices, vegetation coverage, carbon content of that vegetation, fuel use, the weather and the global political situation. The American biofuels law, for instance, was designed to support soybean and corn farmers, not palm-oil producers. But the United States began increasing foreign palm-oil imports nonetheless — they more than doubled by — in large part because so much of the domestic soybean production that once went to food was now being used for fuel.

    Much of that palm oil went to food production. But the increased use of palm oil in food production was largely a byproduct of the increased fuel-oil production. In Europe, which also passed a biofuels mandate in and uses large amounts of palm-based biodiesel directly in its vehicles, the calculation was simpler. Wrangling precisely how much palm demand resulted from using a gallon of soy for fuel, and how much rain-forest carbon, in Indonesia for example, might be emitted as a result, became a question that was increasingly influenced by political factors.

    The E. The agency determined that the carbon footprint of land-use changes overshadowed any other consideration, and not by a small margin. In fact, when land changes were accounted for, the climate benefit of biofuels was entirely wiped away.

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    Because a huge pulse of emissions comes from land change immediately after forests are cut, the E. But that finding did not last long. The agriculture industry went to war to save the mandate they worked so hard to put in place. They lobbied the E. They supported research suggesting that the E. By the time the E.

    Its models now found that the impact from land-use changes were almost negligible. For Indonesia, the E. It also extended the scope of its analysis to , which had the effect of minimizing the short-term emissions. It was nearly two years later that the E. And that analysis, which remains in draft form today, simply ignores the substitution effect — which, calculated in any form, would suggest an even greater carbon cost. After the palm-oil companies gained control of the land, the clearing began. The fastest method was to rip out the forests with excavators and torch what remained.

    In , the fires spread out of control. Kalimantan — and most of Indonesia, for that matter — was overwhelmed by billowing clouds of smoke and ash, visible from hundreds of miles away. NASA satellites detected more than , hot spots. As far away as Singapore and the Thai islands, people covered their faces with masks and prayed that their air-conditioners could filter out the soot. The smoke was so thick that Zenzi Suhadi, a leading activist with the Indonesian environmental group Walhi, was unable to land at Pangkalan Bun airport the day he was supposed to arrive late that September.

    Nor could he land the next day. But Suhadi needed to get closer — right into the heart of the flames. He has taken on the pulp and paper, logging and palm industries with a zeal that seems to grind against his quiet, soft-spoken nature. At 37, he has been riotous and unflagging in the face of powerful government ministers, corporate lawyers and even would-be assassins — all of whom he has faced off with at one time or another.