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Palm Oil Industry Leaves Indonesian Village Struggling With Loss and Regret
By Rizki Nugraha, Michaela Cavanagh and Holly Young
Just like his father and grandfather, Alfian has spent his whole life working as a fisherman on the banks of the Batang Hari river in Rukam, Indonesia.
In the village of 1,200 residents, rows of houses sit low to the ground beside the water, buttressed on the other side by swampy peatlands.
The natural environment has long sustained the life of this village on the island of Sumatra. But now 48-year-old Alfian is struggling. "The fish are gone from the river," he says. "It's barely enough for daily survival."
Alfian remembers when many fish species lived in the peatlands. He could feed his family for a week with the money from one day's catch.
The fate of both Alfian's daily catch and Rukam itself is intertwined with that of an estimated US $60 billion-dollar industry.
Indonesia sits at the heart of the global palm oil trade. In 2002, it arrived on the banks of Rukam when the Indonesian company PT Erasakti Wira Forestama (EWF) offered the villagers a one-time payment for their land.
Some villagers resisted. Syafei, a 68-year-old who was chief of Rukam at the time, advocated for joint ownership and management of the lands between villagers and the company. But he says some residents pressured him to accept the terms.
They were offered roughly €55,000 (700 million Rupiah, $62,333 according to conversation rates at the time) for approximately 2,300 hectares (5684 acres) in total.
"At that time, that amount of money was really huge," says Syafei. The villagers were "yearning for the compensation."
In the end the community sold the land. Valuable peatlands were converted to plantations — and the repercussions of the decision are still felt today.
The Environmental Cost of Palm Oil
Touted as a wonder commodity, palm oil is found in a vast array of products and has been an undeniable driver of economic growth in the country.
But the environment has paid the price — namely through deforestation, loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, and polluted water and air.
Slash-and-burn techniques, used to clear large swathes of land for plantations, are particularly devastating in peatlands like those found in Rukam. Peatlands are made up of thick layers of decomposed organic material and burning them releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
Rukam's residents have witnessed their landscape transform since they sold their land.
The peatlands were drained to make them usable for palm oil. A water pump brought in for irrigation disrupted the natural flow of water, redirecting it from the river to the plantation — which made it difficult for Rukam's residents' to access water for their own fields.
The situation worsened when a flood dam, used to protect the oil palm plantation from flooding, was built in 2009.
"As a consequence, villagers experience more damaging floods in the rainy season and don't have enough water in the dry season," says Rudiansyah, from WALHI, Indonesia's largest environmental organization. Farming has become difficult.
The profits from the sale of land, which were split evenly among residents, were not long-lasting. In fact, Rudiansyah claims Rukam's economy shrank significantly after the land conversion. While there is no data from before EWF came to the village, a study from WALHI and the University of Jambi found 366 of 494 families in Rukam were considered "poor" or "very poor" in 2018.
WALHI and many villagers put this down primarily to the loss of fishing ground due to the palm oil expansion.
Residents say the lakes they used to fish in disappeared after the land conversion and that they've seen fish stocks dramatically decline. When peatlands were drained many valuable species lost their breeding grounds. Now, there are only 53 fishermen, making around €8 ($8.70) per day.
With few alternatives left, many residents have turned to working on the palm oil plantations to earn a living.
Roughly 150 people, or about 16% of the village, work on the EWF plantation, which covers more than 4,000 hectares of land between the Batang Hari and the Kumpeh rivers.
"The only way to survive is to work on the plantation," says Hikmawati, a 35-year-old Rukam resident. Hikmawati worked distributing fertilizer on the plantation but eventually quit because of the high workload and low wages.
Now Hikmawati is trying to earn a living as a seamstress, while her husband works as a driver for the few remaining fishermen.
Loss and Regret
Hikmawati can't imagine any future for Rukam and would turn back the clock if she could: "I'd go back to the olden days where we could grow rice, or when there were still plenty of fish around."
She's not alone. "When I see the vanishing forest, I feel sad... The future looks bleak," fisherman Alfian says. "If nothing changes, then the next generation will leave, and this village will go extinct. Because there is nothing to live for anymore."
Alfian expects he will be the last in the family line of fishermen. "Maybe my children will only learn the names and types of fish that used to live here," he says.
For former village chief Syafei, regret is tinged with frustration: "Everything I had planned for the future has gone to the bottom of the ocean because they didn't want to listen to me."
Many in the community feel a sense of loss, and not just concerning their livelihood. "Countless species of medicinal plants are also lost because of the land conversion from peat forest to plantation," says Rudiansyah.
It's a response common to many villages impacted by the industry. "There is without question an enormous amount of regret for those communities," says Terry Sunderland, a senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
"Rukam's story is actually representative for a lot of the villages in Indonesia that are engaging palm oil," says Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist and chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature palm oil task force.
"Certain communities benefit from palm oil, but for communities in which residents go fishing or hunting or collecting plants as part of their livelihoods, they tend to lose out quite badly when palm oil goes in and cuts down the forest, because you've got major environmental impacts."
A study out of Kalimantan, Indonesia, found a marked decline in social and environmental well-being in communities with oil palm plantations between 2000 and 2014 — particularly those, like Rukam, that relied on subsistence-based livelihoods.
According to Rudiansyah, Rukam is an unusual case because it chose to sell its land as opposed to many communities plagued by conflicts with palm oil companies.
But Sunderland argues fully informed consent is often lacking: "People should be able to make a decision based on the full knowledge of what the implications are. And that's not the case — palm oil is sold as the financial answer to communities' problems.... Palm oil companies negotiate very disingenuously and essentially don't provide all the information."
As part of the concession agreement with the local government, EWF made regular corporate responsibility payments to Rukam, used to build infrastructure in the village.
Still, some villagers now say they were misled about the impact on water and degradation of their peatland forest.
"At that time [of the sale] we didn't know the impact will be like this. It wasn't known to us that there was a plan to build the dam," says Alfian.
"Flooding wasn't even a problem [before], not like now where the water has become dark and murky, probably caused by the pollution from the plantation," says Hikmawati. Although no official study has been carried out, residents have accused the company of dumping chemicals in the river.
EWF has not responded to requests for comment on these allegations.
"The company should have been fair towards the villagers, not trying to destroy their livelihood, but to embrace them as strategic partners," says Rudiansyah, arguing lack of proper education in the community also played a role.
Wildfires and Mixed Progress
Despite established criteria from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in data from 2018, only 19% of palm oil produced globally was certified sustainable. Furthermore, Greenpeace have argued deforestation continues to happen even among certified palm oil companies.
The Indonesian government has frequently touted the economic benefits of the industry. However, in the wake of the 2015 wildfires, which destroyed 2.6 million hectares of land including large swathes of peatland, the government took steps that earned international praise.
The Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) was set up in 2016 and by the end of 2018, it had restored more than 679,000 hectares. In 2019, the same year as more intense wildfires hit the country, the Indonesian government also issued a permanent moratorium on new forest clearance for activities like palm oil development and logging.
But not all are convinced of the progress.
"[Palm oil] companies benefit from poorly enforced laws, which in some cases are also poorly drafted," says Sol Gosetti from Greenpeace, referring to the creation of the BRG and renewed government action against companies destroying forests and peatland, such as mandating punitive fines and revoking licenses.
"The intentions [of government plans] seemed good, but there has been very mixed follow up and research in the field shows that the plantation sector is still not changing its practices," says Gosetti. "In the meantime, a number of plantation companies continue expansion; clearing forests and draining wet, carbon-rich peatlands."
Despite the moratorium, a Greenpeace investigation in 2019 found that more than 1 million hectares had been burned in protected areas. The government has also been criticized for a failure to enforce industry transparency or regulations and tackle human rights abuses.
Yet at the local level, some see reasons to believe the peatlands have a future.
Panace, 39, is a farmer living in Pematang Rahim, a village not far from Rukam. He used to cultivate palm oil on peatlands, but found it was very expensive as a smallholder farmer and was degrading the soil.
Now he is one of many farmers working to rehabilitate their land through the peat restoration program. The first step is rewetting the peatlands by installing infrastructure like deep wells and canal blockings to redistribute water. Then trees and other crops are replanted to repair damaged land.
"We are going to continue diversifying our own crops and try to establish polyculture," says Panace. "We have started with Pinang palm — which grows well in peatlands and has a higher price on the market than palm oil fruits — and so far, it looks really promising."
The program depends on the willingness of both farmers and palm oil companies to participate but Panace believes education is key in the future. The program also works with community groups, NGOs and universities to promote the advantages of peatland restoration.
Change will not happen overnight. "Peatland recovery takes decades, while restoration activities have only been running for four years," says Myrna Safitri, from BRG. But once established on a broad scale it could help mitigate the spread of wildfires.
While restoration has not yet reached Rukam, not all residents are resigned to their village's fate.
Following pressure from the region's provincial government and WALHI, EWF has agreed to meet three demands of the villagers in Rukam, set to be put into effect this year: To repair the health of the soil, to help residents set up rice fields and irrigation systems, and to restore the water source for agriculture and clean drinking water.
This comes almost two decades after the decision that changed everything for Rukam. "Years ago, we only needed to take what nature provided for us," laments Syafei. "Our entire way of life was dependent on the natural rhythm of the seasons."
But he hasn't completely given up hope there is still time to recognize what is at stake. "If we don't learn from the past, then this village might disappear."
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Joe Roman and Taylor Ricketts
The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.
The Hedonometer measures happiness through analysis of key words on Twitter, which is now used by one in five Americans. This chart covers 18 months from early 2019 to July 2020, showing major dips in 2020. hedonometer.org<p>These same tweets also indicate a potential salve. Before pandemic lockdowns began, doctoral student <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0P0ZYbIAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Aaron Schwartz</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10045" target="_blank">compared tweets before, during, and after visits to 150 parks, playgrounds and plazas</a> in San Francisco. He found that park visits corresponded with a spike in happiness, followed by an afterglow lasting up to four hours.</p><p>Tweets from parks contained fewer negative words such as "no," "not" and "can't," and fewer first-person pronouns like "I" and "me." It seems that nature makes people more positive and less self-obsessed.</p><p>Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. Research has also shown that transmission rates for COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Is-risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-15287602.php" target="_blank">much lower outdoors than inside</a>. As scholars who study <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=yFzb2EUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">conservation</a> and how nature <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CCnUeN8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">contributes to human well-being</a>, we see opening up parks and creating new ones as a straightforward remedy for Americans' current blues.</p>
Park Visits Are Up During the Pandemic<p>According to the Hedonometer, sentiments expressed online started trending lower in mid-March as the impacts of the pandemic became clear. As lockdowns continued, they registered the lowest sentiment scores on record. Then in late May, effects from George Floyd's death in police custody and the following protests and police response once again could be seen on Twitter. May 31, 2020 was the saddest day of the project.</p><p>Recent surveys of park visitors around the University of Vermont have shown people <a href="https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sd3h6" target="_blank">using green spaces more</a> since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Many people reported that parks were highly important to their well-being during the pandemic.</p>
<div id="4c7e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc0ac146ab2a94228f32d973fc2ab272"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1289428912879964160" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#Goldengatepark #sf #quarantinemood https://t.co/9l3ufnbkt6</div> — Suvd (@Suvd)<a href="https://twitter.com/Suvd19486406/statuses/1289428912879964160">1596258783.0</a></blockquote></div><p>The powerful effects of nature are strongest in large parks with more trees, but smaller neighborhood parks also provide a significant boost. Their impact on happiness is real, measurable and lasting.</p><p>Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year. Schwartz has since expanded his <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.10658.pdf" target="_blank">Twitter study</a> to the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and found this bounce everywhere.</p><p>Parks and public spaces won't cure COVID-19 or stop police brutality, but they are far more than playgrounds. There is growing evidence that parks contribute to mental and physical health in a range of communities.</p><p>In a 2015 study, for example, Stanford researchers sent people out for one of two walks: through a local park or on a busy street. Those who walked in nature showed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005" target="_blank">improved moods and better memory performance</a> compared to the urban group. And a team led by <a href="https://penniur.upenn.edu/people/eugenia-gina-south" target="_blank">Gina South</a> of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a 2018 study that greening and cleaning up blighted vacant lots in Philadelphia <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298" target="_blank">reduced local residents' feelings of depression, worthlessness and poor mental health</a>.</p>
Creative Strategies<p>It isn't easy to create new parks on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or the Washington Mall, but smaller projects can expand outdoor space. Options include greening vacant lots, closing streets and investing in existing parks to make them safer, greener and shadier and support wildlife.</p><p>These initiatives don't have to be capital-intensive. In the University of Pennsylvania study, for example, renovating a vacant lot by removing trash, planting grass and trees and installing a low fence cost only about US$1,600.</p><p>Urban green space is most needed in neighborhoods that have lacked funding for parks, especially given <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html" target="_blank">COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people</a>.</p><p>Cities can also create parklike spaces by <a href="https://theconversation.com/with-fewer-cars-on-us-streets-now-is-the-time-to-reinvent-roadways-and-how-we-use-them-140408" target="_blank">closing streets to cars</a>. Many cities worldwide are currently retooling their transportation systems for the post-COVID-19 world in order to <a href="https://thecityfix.com/blog/bicycles-slower-speeds-livable-city-paris-mayor-anne-hidalgo-plans-ambitious-second-term-dario-hidalgo/" target="_blank">reallocate public space</a>, widen sidewalks and make more space for nature.</p><p>Urban designers, artists, ecologists and other citizens can play a direct role, too, creating pop-up parks and green spaces. Some advocates <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-15/a-brief-history-of-park-ing-day" target="_blank">transform parking spaces into mini-parks</a> with grass, potted trees and seating for just the time on the meter, to make a larger point about turning so much public space over to cars.</p><p>Or cities can invest a little more. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Arlington, Virginia, have won <a href="https://www.tpl.org/parkscore" target="_blank">national recognition</a> for their ambitious investments in public park systems. These areas could serve as models for neighborhoods that lack access to parks.</p>
<div id="25fd0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="383f0d2df0237e9359c30dcce6cd6c42"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1276558744835379201" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Looking to safely get outside? Check out the best parks for social distancing in this year's top ten ParkScore citi… https://t.co/HJjEtDsrTD</div> — The Trust for Public Land (@The Trust for Public Land)<a href="https://twitter.com/tpl_org/statuses/1276558744835379201">1593190296.0</a></blockquote></div>
A New Park Deal?<p>The United States has historically driven economic recovery with major infrastructure investments, like the New Deal in the 1930s and the 2009 <a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act.asp" target="_blank">American Reinvestment and Recovery Act</a>. Such investments could easily include nature-positive spaces.</p><p>Parks are not panaceas, as evidenced by the widely publicized <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html" target="_blank">racist confrontation between a white woman and a Black birder</a> in New York's Central Park in early July. But Hedonometer data add to a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903?utm_source=miragenews&utm_medium=miragenews&utm_campaign=news" target="_blank">growing body of evidence</a> that they provide <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116" target="_blank">clear mental health benefits</a>. Creating and expanding parks also <a href="https://www.nrpa.org/contentassets/f568e0ca499743a08148e3593c860fc5/economic-impact-study-summary.pdf" target="_blank">generates jobs and economic activity</a>, with much of the money spent locally.</p><p>We believe investments in nature are well worth it, offering both short-term solace in difficult times and long-term benefits to health, economies and communities.</p>
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New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced Thursday that she will attempt to dismantle the National Rifle Association (NRA), arguing that years of corruption and mismanagement warrant the dissolution of the activist organization, as CNN reported.
<div id="7eb49" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="83819841e380a7072ec66d3186c160e8"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1291705003984510977" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨RESPONSE to #Mauritius #OILSpill 🚨 “Once again we see the risks in oil: aggravating the #ClimateCrisis, as well as… https://t.co/PBLioZat6X</div> — Greenpeace Africa (@Greenpeace Africa)<a href="https://twitter.com/Greenpeaceafric/statuses/1291705003984510977">1596801446.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"There is no guaranteed safe way to extract, transport and store fossil fuel products. This oil leak is not a twist of fate, but the choice of our twisted addiction to fossil fuels. We must react by accelerating our withdrawal from fossil fuels," Greenpeace Africa Senior Climate and Energy Campaign Manager Happy Khambule said in a <a href="https://www.greenpeace.org/africa/en/press/11864/greenpeace-africa-response-to-mauritius-oil-spill/?utm_campaign=oil&utm_source=t.co&utm_medium=post&utm_content=single-image&utm_term=mauritius-oil-spill-reactive" target="_blank">statement Friday</a>. "Once again we see the risks in oil: aggravating the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis" target="_self">climate crisis</a>, as well as devastating oceans and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/biodiversity" target="_self">biodiversity</a> and threatening local livelihoods around some of Africa's most precious lagoons."</p>
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