Source: Reuters, 08 Jun 2007 11:34 GMT
JAKARTA, June 8 (Reuters) - Indonesian palm oil producers are asking the government to define clearly forest areas that need conserving to help prevent plantations from encroaching on critical habitats, a senior industry official on Friday.
Environmental groups are concerned that rapidly expanding palm oil plantations, partly on ambitious plans for biofuel, are damaging pristine rain forests and driving out rare species.
Derom Bangun, executive chairman of the Indonesia Palm Oil Producers Association, said the government should map out forest areas for conservation and for agricultural activity.
"By having them clear and publicised, everybody can be sure that we are cultivating in areas which are already considered suitable for them without sacrificing or at the expense of habitat for rare species," Bangun told Reuters.
The association had asked its members to map out areas that might have significant biodiversity, contain threatened species or have special cultural significance, he said.
"Now in new areas they make a thorough survey first. When they find high conservation forest, they would not open it," Bangun said, adding that members should also follow the principles set out by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
The body, which includes palm oil producers, processors, users and environmentalists, aims to promote the production and the use of sustainable palm oil.
"We hope and we are sure by using the criteria and principle, opening new plantation will be done carefully," he said.
But controlling hundreds of firms opening up new plantations may be hard. The association's membership covers only 30 percent of the country's total palm oil plantation area of 6 million hectares.
Bangun said the task had been complicated by devolved powers making regional governments in charge of licensing new plantations.
"There is a controversy in the field. The regional government decides certain areas which they think can be converted as agriculture areas but central government said the area should be preserve as forestry areas," Bangun said.
"But in general, companies merely follow guidelines given by the government."
Malaysia and Indonesia, the world's largest palm oil producers, struck a deal last month to take measures to counter environmental concerns they said were undermining palm oil's claim to be a green fuel.
This includes setting up a technical group to mount a pro-industry campaign in Europe, the second-largest consumer of palm oil and the biggest source of demand for palm-based biofuel.
Greenpeace says Indonesia had the fastest pace of deforestation in the world in 2000-2005, with an area of forest equivalent to 300 soccer pitches destroyed each hour.
Friends of the Earth says almost 90 percent of orangutans' habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia has now disappeared and, if the destruction continues, Asia's only great ape could become extinct in 12 years.
(Additional reporting by Mita Valina Liem)