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The "Green Energy" Decimating Indigenous Communities
Green investment funds are driving immense deforestation and horrific human loss.
Millions of dollars of green investment intended to usher in a new era of low-carbon energy have been invested into a project that is decimating one of the world’s most crucial ecosystems and is literally starving indigenous communities. Why? Well, rather than switching to more established green infrastructure, Indonesia has focused on a cheap shortcut: biomass power plants. But how does biomass energy cause such destruction? And is there a solution?
Let’s start off with what biomass energy is. Biomass energy uses the natural carbon-capturing power of plants to create low-carbon or even carbon-neutral power. Plants take water, carbon dioxide, and energy from light and combine them in a process known as photosynthesis to make carbon-rich sugars and oxygen. The plant uses some of this sugar to fuel itself and combines the rest in unique ways to make organic polymers, which allows it to build its own body. This is why you will sometimes hear people say that wood is actually made of air, as the fibres in wood use carbon the plant has absorbed from the air.
So if you burn wood (also known as biomass) rather than fossil fuels in power plants, you can, in theory, make carbon-neutral power, as the carbon entering the atmosphere from the combustion originated from the atmosphere, not from oil.
This makes biomass energy particularly interesting for countries that don’t have a big budget to transition to clean energy. They can keep their coal-fired power plants open; all they need to do is switch the fuel out for biomass fuel, and hey presto, they have cheap, low-carbon energy!
But it does take investment to switch from coal to biomass fuel, as you need to set up wood plantations, transport infrastructure, preparation infrastructure, and train and hire employees. As such, when Indonesia decided to switch to biomass energy, it needed investment.
To achieve this, an Indonesian conglomerate named Medco was founded in the 2000s to build biomass power plants and infrastructure. They received the equivalent of $4.5 million from Sarana Multi Infrastruktur (SMI), a state-owned company under the control of the Ministry of Finance, and $9.4 million from the Indonesian Environment Fund (IEF). Medco then went on to obtain a licence to deforest 170,000 hectares of rainforest and turn it into a wood plantation to make biofuel. It has already converted most of this area to plantations and now plans to expand by a further 2,500 hectares to supply more biomass.
All of this sounds okay, right? What’s the problem? Well, the vast swathes of rainforest Medco has cut down significantly overlap the ancestral territory of Marind people living in Zanegi village. This indigenous community still holds true to their hunter-gatherer roots and, in large part, lives off the fat of the land.
Back in the early 2000s, people knew that deforestation in this ancestral territory could lead to rampant poverty and malnutrition. As a result, Medco signed an agreement in 2009 to protect sacred places, areas of cultural importance, hunting grounds, and “other places considered important to the community.” It also promised to provide jobs and income to these indigenous communities to ensure their security.
But do you think they kept their promises? Hell no! Medco has expanded its deforestation activity into Marind ancestral hunting grounds. While they did hire many Marind people in the early days, they quickly fired them as “they were losing money” and replaced them with third-party contractors.
Surprisingly, having your ancestral hunting grounds bulldozed and turned into plantations makes it really hard to hunt. The villagers used to find food on their doorstep, like cassowaries, boar, kangaroos, and copious fish in the local swamps. But now, all of them are gone. Villagers have to walk for up to 15 kilometres to find food and regularly come back empty-handed. This wouldn’t be a problem if other sources of food were readily available, but other food sources are insanely expensive, leaving these villagers at serious risk of malnutrition.
Since 2012, a total of nine malnourished children have died in Zanegi. In April of last year, health workers found that four children had stunted growth and eight pregnant women were suffering from chronic energy deficiency, which is a serious health risk to them and their babies.
For a small indigenous community, these losses are catastrophic. Not only is it an unnecessary and heartbreaking loss of life, but it also threatens the Marind way of life itself.
And the damage goes far beyond just the horrific human loss. Indonesia has among the highest deforestation rates on the planet, and only around half of its original rainforest cover remains. What’s more, these rainforests have some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, making them a key source of diversity, which can help ecosystems rapidly adapt to changing climates. So, the fact that Medco is cutting down thousands of hectares and the Marind people are struggling to hunt in the remaining forest suggests a dire ecological situation.
But maybe this will be worth it for such a clean energy source. Right? Well, no.
While biomass might seem clean, it really isn’t. It produces particulates, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides, acid rain, and can even spread heavy metals into the air. This stuff is horrific for ecosystems and can cause respiratory problems for anyone nearby. So, even if Medco wasn’t decimating the rainforest and killing indigenous people, their biomass power plants would still be causing ecological and human destruction.
What is Medco’s response to all of this? They put out a statement recently saying that “Medco Papua’s operations do not cause malnutrition” and that “no community food sources were disturbed.” That might be the most ignorant statement from any organisation I have ever heard! Particularly when you think Medco is supposed to be a green energy supplier whose aim is to save the world. All of this goes to show that even if something is labelled “green,” that doesn’t mean it is. There is no shortcut to saving the planet, and if countries like Indonesia need help from more developed countries to build genuinely sustainable infrastructure, then that is what we need to do.
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