More agrofuel victims: The tigers of Sumatra


We’ve written extensively about the environmental and human costs of the imposition of industrial scale plantations for cultivation of fuel crops in the Third World.

Now scientists have discovered a new victim of the rush to transform rain forest into fuel farms, the endangered Sumatran tiger [Panthera tigris sumatrae].

In a study just published in the open access journal PLoS ONE, a team of scientists in the U.S. and have examined the impact of plantation agriculture on the magnificent animal’s habitat, the key to its survival.

As the preservationist group Tigers in Crisis notes

It is estimated that only between 500-600 Sumatran tigers remain in the wild, and the actual number may be as low as 400. And their population is dwindling rapidly.

A 1978 a tiger census reported around 1,000 Sumatran tigers still in the wild. This means over the last 25 years, the population of Sumatran tigers has been cut in half.

The Sumatran tiger is considered to be a ‘critically’ endangered species.

But the tiger depends on the dense vegetation of the natural forest for its survival, an environment that’s rapidly vanishing to the greed of industrial agriculture, including an estimated 3.9 million hectares [9.6. million acres] planted in oil palms, a staple of the agrofuel industry.

Other major Sumatran plantation crops include acacia [used for making paper  coveted by printers of Bibles and dictionaries], coconut palms, and rubber.

Sunarto Sunarto and Marcella J. Kelly of Vrginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation; Karmila Parakkasi, Eka Septayuda, and Harry Kurniawan of the Worldwide Fund for Nature-Indonesia Species Program, and  Sybille Klenzendorf of the World Wildlife Fund, write that “to thrive, tigers depend on the existence of large contiguous forest blocks.”

As currently managed, plantation agriculture doesn’t provide the necessary habitat — though, with changes in farming practices, corridors could be created to improve the chances of the creature’s survival.

But one has to wonder, given the political and economic power of the plantation industry, just how much will exists to make changes that will mean reductions in the all-important bottom line.

Here’s a key chart from their paper showing the relative likelihood that tigers will use a range of environments, including native forest and the four principal types of plantation agriculture:

These estimates were produced from the best model for each landcover (bars) and ratio of plantation’s probability of use (diamonds) relative to forest based on a) landscape covariates and b) manual covariates.

Along with tigers, another creature also faces imminent extinction, the orangutan. Here’s a video from Borneo Orangutan Survival show the devastating impact of palm oil plantations on the endangered Great Ape:

And habitat destruction isn’t the only problem, as the Sumatran Orangutan Society reports [PDF]:

The oil-palm plantation business is the most conflict-ridden sector in Indonesia, and one of the most polluting. Plantations are often forcibly established on land traditionally owned by indigenous peoples, and plantation development has repeatedly been associated with violent conflict. In Indonesia, between 1998 and 2002 alone, 479 people were reported as having been tortured in conflicts defending community rights, and dozens of people have been killed in land-tenure disputes. In many plantations, workers have to contend with low wages and appalling living conditions. The palm-oil industry may create jobs and generate export revenue, but it can also trap entire communities in poverty.

So a familiar pattern emerges: Environmental and human devastation, including slavery, all carried out in the name of allegedly green and renewable resources.

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