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Why Biofuels Are the Rainforest's Worst Enemy

Nestled deep in the tropical rainforest on the island of Borneo, Pareh is a collection of about 60 weathered wooden houses perched on stilts and enfolded by coconut palms, banana trees, and the dappled green overhang of the towering forest. Pareh's inhabitants belong to the indigenous tribes of Borneo collectively identified as the Dayak. They have lived here for centuries, raising rubber trees, pumpkin, cassava, and rice, and harvesting wood for fuel and lumber.

In 2005, a group of village men went hunting in the forest several hours from Pareh and stumbled on a clearing in which the trees had recently been felled. That was how they discovered that Perseroan Terbatas Ledo Lestari, or ptll, a subsidiary of an Indonesian company named Duta Palma Nusantara, was seizing their ancestral land to establish a massive plantation of oil palms, a tree whose oil is rendered and refined into biodiesel. (One of Duta Palma's major customers is Wilmar International Ltd, a Singapore-based firm in which US agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland holds a 16 percent stake.)

Over the next two years ptll destroyed 15,000 acres, which the Dayak say amounts to three-quarters of their "customary forest"—land that's vital for their survival and to which they have certain rights under Indonesian law. The plantation also uprooted monkeys and wild boar, which began raiding the community's food supply. Because ptll replaced diverse forest with a monocrop, pests invaded Pareh's subsistence gardens. Rice crops failed. The Dayak filed complaints with regional and national officials; at one point they commandeered one of ptll's bulldozers (an offense for which Momonus, the village head, and Jamaluddin, an elder, served jail time). The clearing went on.

Increasingly desperate, in 2007 the people of Pareh offered ptll a drastic compromise. The villagers would surrender every acre the plantation had illegally seized if the company agreed to take no more land. There was no response. Soon after, a villager obtained a ptll map showing the company's long-term plan: It aimed to clearcut 50,000 acres, more than three times as much land as it had already taken. On the map, both Pareh and its sister village, Semunying, were gone.

Later that fall, a hunting party was searching for wild boar when the men heard the unmistakable whine of chain saws. This time, they didn't write up a complaint—they assembled a posse. More than 60 people from Pareh and Semunying descended on the site. They found a clearcutting crew in action, protected by Indonesian army troops; by way of protest, they seized 11 chain saws. "If we didn't do anything, our land would be gone," a defiant Jamaluddin told me.
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