Could This Tree Be An Eco-Friendly Way To Wean Indonesian Farmers Off Palm Oil? : The Salt Palm oil plantations have led to widespread deforestation in Indonesia. But now some farmers are turning to a different crop — damar, a kind of anti-palm oil, grown in forest-based farms.
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Could This Tree Be An Eco-Friendly Way To Wean Indonesian Farmers Off Palm Oil?

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Could This Tree Be An Eco-Friendly Way To Wean Indonesian Farmers Off Palm Oil?

Could This Tree Be An Eco-Friendly Way To Wean Indonesian Farmers Off Palm Oil?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/771410815/771599524" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In recent weeks, smoke drifting from Indonesia has been so heavy across Southeast Asia it's forced residents of Singapore inside and closed schools. The smoke comes as Indonesian farmers burn forests, clearing land for palm oil plantations. But now some Indonesian farmers are turning to a different crop, a kind of anti-palm oil. From Sumatra, Julia Simon has this report.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: A few times a month, Marhana leaves her tiny village of Krui and heads deep into the woods.

So we're leaving the village. We have about 12 children following us. I feel like the Pied Piper.

We climb up a hill, and then Marhana shows me a tree.

MARHANA: (Foreign language spoken).

SIMON: This is the damar.

It kind of looks like a glue gun. There's a triangle in the middle of a tree, and there's all these glue gun drippings dropping from the tree. Damar's the sap, extracted like a crystallized maple syrup. Marhana takes a woven rope, wraps it around her back.

MARHANA: (Foreign language spoken).

SIMON: Which she says she uses to lasso up the tree.

Wow, you're climbing up.

So she has a tiny pick axe. And she's taking that glue gun stuff and putting it in her bucket, chipping away.

Now 48, Marhana has been climbing since she was a kid.

MARHANA: (Foreign language spoken).

SIMON: Lima belas tahun - so you were 15 years old.

Today, she works in damar to support her kids, like her mother and grandmother before her. Sumatra's damar goes way back. Dutch colonists used it to bind their boats for sea journeys. Today, you find it new varnishes, paints, even makeup. According to the U.N., Indonesia exports tens of thousands of tons of damar and other resins a year. But that's small compared to the 2 to three 3 tons of palm oil that the country exports each month. That palm oil industry is a big cause of deforestation, which in turn is a big cause of climate change. That's why last year the Indonesian government stopped issuing licenses for new palm oil plantations. And the EU is now considering an import ban. But there is an issue.

THOMAS HERTEL: Even if they import ban bites, it may not do the job.

SIMON: Thomas Hertel is a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. Last month, he co-authored a paper arguing that even if government bans and sustainable certification schemes reduce the palm oil trade, local farmers aren't just going to keep the forests in place.

HERTEL: If you focus on certifying one crop, they switch to another crop. I mean, the incentive for deforestation will still be there.

SIMON: So they might just start cutting down the trees and planting soy and rice instead of palm oil?

HERTEL: That's right.

SIMON: That's where damar can help. Here's how.

KAMAS USMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SIMON: In the forests of Krui, farmer Kamas Usman says he grows damar in something called an agroforest. That means he has damar in the canopy, with avocados, lichis and jackfruit pillow. David Gilbert, a researcher at UC Berkeley, says all these crops growing together means people like Usman and Marhana have lots of economic incentives not to cut down the trees.

DAVID GILBERT: All these different crops, they actually present some really important livelihood advantages to the forest farmers that are creating them. So if the damar price is too low, for example, they can concentrate on selling their coffee or their avocados.

SIMON: Agroforestry spreading - the Indonesian government now has plans for new damar trees across the archipelago. For NPR News, I'm Julia Simon in Sumatra.

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