Palm oil, peatfires, Nutella and the anthropocene

Armin Linke, Fighting fire in the peatland, Kecematan Bataian Kabupaten Rokan Hilir (Sumatra) Indonesia, 2017. Photo: © Armin Linke


Although Charles Darwin is usually the only name that springs to mind when mentioning the theory of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace was actually a co-discoverer of the theory. Wallace developed some of his most important ideas about natural selection during research trips to South America and Southeast Asia.

Anthony Smith, Bronze statue of Alfred Russel Wallace. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2014. Courtesy Linnean Society London


150 years later, the tropical habitats that the British naturalist explored have been radically transformed. The rainforests have been ravaged, ruined and flattened to make space for monoculture and other human pursuits of profit.

Verschwindende Vermächtnisse: Die Welt als Wald / Disappearing Legacies: The World as a Forest, an exhibition currently open at the Zoological Museum in Hamburg, “confronts the destruction of these tropical habitats in the context of the Anthropocene and mass extinction.”

If Wallace were to visit these rainforests today, would he still be able to formulate the principles of evolution by natural selection? Or has the biodiversity of those regions dropped so significantly that he would come back from his journey with little more than a few notebooks filled with drawings?

Both the premise and the works selected for the exhibition are worth a trip to Hamburg. I’ll come back with a full review of the show on Friday but in the meantime, i’d like to share a video i found so eye-opening and powerful that it deserves to be singled out in a post.

The video was produced by (an organization offering a free web-based platform that combines crowd-sourced reporting and government agency validations to visualize disasters in real time) for the Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest exhibition. It explains the devastating impact that palm tree monocultures in Indonesia are having on the local landscape as well as on the whole the Earth System and its climate. I thought i knew about the havoc that palm oil plantations are wreaking on the environment, i had no idea it was this bad (burning an area the size of my country in only 5 months!!):, Peat Fires & Palm Oil: An Introduction


Indonesia is the world’s biggest exporter of palm oil and its production, a highly lucrative one, is seen as essential to its economic growth. The oil is everywhere around us: in our soap, cereals, biodiesel, washing powder, instant noodles, lipstick, etc. And of course it’s a key ingredient in France’s favourite sugary spread.

The industry, however, is extremely damaging for the environment. Vast swathes of rainforest are destroyed to make space for the monocultures of oil palms, threatening biodiversity, destroying the habitat of endangered species (Borneo pygmy elephants, Sumatran elephants, Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinoceroses, the orangutan, etc), pushing indigenous people off their lands and contributing to the release of climate-warming gases. Indonesia is the world’s fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly due to the conversion of its forests and carbon-rich peatlands, a type of wetlands which are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth because they act as natural terrestrial carbon store and are thus essential in the fight against climate change.

Palm Oil plantation in Riau, (Sumatra) Indonesia. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2016


As for the images i’m using to illustrate the topic, they have been made by photographer Armin Linke, his colleague Giulia Bruno and exhibition curators Anna-Sophie Springer and Dr. Etienne Turpin. They traveled to Borneo, Java and Sumatra, met with local residents, plantation workers, smallholders, environmentalists, government officials and scientists to document the problem and reflect on the speed with which Indonesia is currently transforming into a palm-oil nation amid giant peat fires.

But as i wrote above: more soon…

Harvested fruits of palm oil in Riau, (Sumatra) Indonesia. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2016

Armin Linke, Palm oil plantation, Kecematan Bataian Kabupaten Rokan Hilir (Sumatra) Indonesia, 2017. Photo: © Armin Linke

Trucks bring oil palm fruits to the pressing plants in Riau, (Sumatra) Indonesia. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Anna-Sophie Springer, 2016

A motorcycle loaded with palm oil fruits in Riau, (Sumatra) Indonesia. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2016

Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest / Verschwindende Vermächtnisse: Die Welt als Wald is curated by Anna-Sophie Springer and Dr. Etienne Turpin. The exhibition remains open until 29 March 2018 at the Zoological Museum in Hamburg.
Entrance is free.


Link to the original article here.

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