In December 2007, the Malaysian company Vitroplant had been granted the permit to begin developing 70% of Woodlark Island into palm oil plantations. By 2008, the government of Papua New Guinea decided it would no longer allow Vitroplant Ltd. to deforest 70% of Woodlark Island for palm oil plantations. This change came about after one hundred Woodlark Islanders (out of a population of 6,000) traveled to Alotau -the capital of Milne Bay Province- to deliver a protest letter to the local government; after several articles in Mongabay and Pacific Magazine highlighted the plight of the island; after Eco-Internet held a campaign in which approximately three thousand individuals worldwide sent nearly 50,000 letters to local officials; and after an article appeared in the London Telegraph stating that due to deforestation on New Britain Island and planned deforestation on Woodlark Island, Papua New Guinea had gone from being an eco-hero to an ‘eco-zero’.

Except for the article in the London Telegraph, media largely ignored the issue of Woodlark Island. For the many involved this was disappointing, since the plight of Woodlark Island so perfectly presented the wholesale destruction palm oil plantations have been causing in Asian and Pacific forests for years. Dr. Glen Barry, founder and director of Ecological Internet, referred to the situation as the “epitome of ecological evil” since this “incredibly diverse island would be turned over to a monoculture crop.” The issue found its way from local protestors to scientists to global organizations, eventually putting international pressure on the decision-makers.

With more attention placed on biofuels by researchers and governments-the EU has already taken notice- it is possible that the palm oil industry will begin to wan in South East Asia. Science magazine has arrived with two reports on the carbon footprint of biofuels, one of which has been published in the paper edition of February 2008. In the paper, scientists deal serious damage to the belief – which up to now has been driving the biofuel bubble – that stepped-up ethanol production in the US is an answer to global warming. Writing in “Use of US croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions for Land Use or Change,” Timothy Searchinger and many others state: “To produce more biofuels, farmers can directly plow up more forest or grassland, which releases to the atmosphere much of the carbon previously stored in plants and soils through decomposition or fire. The loss of maturing forests and grasslands also forgoes ongoing carbon sequestration as plants grow each year”. The scientists step on switch grass, too, a weed peddled by those promoting the still largely theoretical panacea of ethanol production direct from cellulose. “Biofuels from switch grass, if grown on US corn lands increase emissions by 50 per cent,” wrote the authors in the lead paragraph. The news tosses a good deal of water on the biofuel fire.

Some scientists believe there are ways to counter the current biofuel rush. “I think that part of the solution to countering the expansion of palm oil plantations into former rainforest territories across Asia and Melanesia is getting the word out globally that the global biofuel industry,” says Dr. Helgen, “especially those parts of the industry that involve massive tropical deforestation, involve catastrophic losses of biodiversity… and may have a huge negative impact in worldwide efforts to counteract the acceleration of global climate change.” Another alternative currently discussed by scientists is making biofuels from waste biomass or from biomass grown on degraded and abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials. According the article “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt,” these biofuels incur little or no carbon debt and can offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages.

Sources: Science Magazine (February 2008): http://www.sciencemag.org/content/319/5867/1235.full; http://www.sciencemag.org/content/319/5867/1238.abstract; Mongabay Environmental News: http://news.mongabay.com/2007/1213-woodlark.html