Toxic river: the fight to reclaim water from oil palm plantations in Indonesia

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“Only few countries in the world have experienced the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations like Indonesia. Oil palm is not a native crop to the country, and yet the nature of the tree means that it can only be grown in a narrow band of tropical land North or South of the equator with abundant and evenly spread rainfall. The average water needed during cultivation period is equivalent to 3.4 mm of rainfall per day equal to 34,000 litres per hectare (ha) per day.  These specific conditions make the potential area for oil palm plantations rather limited, and it is found in Indonesia.

Some of the major plantation companies operating in Indonesia have expanded their business to other parts of the world. Companies like Wilmar International, Cargill, Golden Agri Resources, Socfin Group and Asian Agri are among the plantation owners who have been actively expanding into Africa and Latin America over the past decades. The fact is that land in Indonesia and Malaysia – the two countries who produce almost all of the world’s oil palm  – has become too dense for new plantations. It is critical to expose the daily reality and struggle for water of people living around and on oil palm plantations. Local communities are deeply concerned about their freshwater sources. But the long-term impact of oil palm plantations on freshwater streams seems to have been overlooked until now.

In Indonesia, more than 82 million people still experience lack of access to proper water and sanitation. And yet, water grabbing by oil palm plantation indicates an advanced stage of water liberalisation. It is no longer just the commodification of water in its visible form, such as the privatisation of piped drinking water or bottled water, that is the only problem. But it’s also about virtual water, which is the amount of water that is used in the production of food and other products. And these amounts are huge.”

In this joint report by ECOTON, GRAIN,  KRUHA, and Gemawan, communities in West Kalimantan, Indonesia shares their struggle to access clean water and to continue producing food facing due to lower water quantity and contamination in their river and water source from the heavy use of fertilizer and pesticides from oil palm plantation.

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