Southeast Asia gears up for palm oil boom

JAKARTA, Sept 12, 2007 (AFP) – Southeast Asian nations are gearing up for a palm oil boom as interest in biofuels soars, but activists warn the crop may not satisfy a global thirst for energy that is both clean and green. They caution that oil palm plantations require massive swathes of land — either what’s left of the region’s disappearing forests, denuded plots that would be better off reforested, or land critical to supporting local people.

Governments and companies have been scrambling to cash in since palm oil prices jumped last year due to spiking demand from China, India and Europe, where biofuels should comprise 10 percent of motor fuels by 2020.

Indonesia has launched a particularly ambitious biofuels expansion programme, which aims to see Southeast Asia’s largest economy source 17 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2025.

Evita Herawati, an assistant to Indonesia’s minister of energy, said 5.5 million hectares (13.5 million acres) will be set aside for biofuel plantations by 2010, 1.5 million hectares of which are for oil palm.

The main objective is “to create jobs and alleviate poverty,” with some 3.5 million new jobs being eyed by 2010.

“A lot of forest has been cut