Story brought to you by Jezebel Fonteyn August 8th, 2017
Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil that is derived from the palm fruit, grown on the African oil palm tree. Oil palms are originally from Western Africa, but can flourish wherever heat and rainfall are abundant. Today, palm oil is grown throughout Africa, Asia, North America, and South America, with 85% of all palm oil globally produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia; but most of the time not using sustainable measures.
The industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced, as the land and forests must be cleared for the development of the oil palm plantations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production. This large-scale deforestation is pushing many species to extinction, and findings show that if nothing changes species like the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next 5-10 years, and Sumatran tigers less than 3 years.
In total, tens of millions of tons of palm oil is produced annually, accounting for over 30% of the world’s vegetable oil production. This single vegetable oil is found in approximately 40-50% of household products in many developed countries like Australia. Palm oil can be present in a wide variety of products, including baked goods, confectionery, shampoo, cosmetics, cleaning agents, washing detergents and toothpaste.
A large proportion of palm oil expansion occurs at the expense of biodiversity and ecosystems in the countries it is produced. Currently, a third of all mammal species in Indonesia are considered to be critically endangered as a consequence of this unsustainable development that is rapidly encroaching on their habitat.
One animal of particular importance according to conservationists is the orangutan, which has become a charismatic icon for deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra. Over 90% of orangutan habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years, and as such, is considered “a conservation emergency” by the UN. An estimated 1000-5000 orangutans are killed each year for this development. The orangutan is a keystone species and plays a vital role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem. An example of this being the spread of rain-forest seeds in Indonesia, many of which can only germinate once passed through the gut of an orangutan, hence this primate is essential for the existence of the forest. But the orangutan is not the only species affected by palm oil development; their situation represents the story of thousands of other species facing the same fate in South-East Asia.
Deforestation for palm oil production also contributes significantly to climate change. The removal of the native forests often involves the burning of invaluable timber and remaining forest undergrowth, emitting immense quantities of smoke into the atmosphere and making Indonesia the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.
There are over 300,000 different animals found throughout the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra, many of which are injured, killed and displaced during deforestation. In addition, palm oil development increases accessibility of animals to poachers and wildlife smugglers who capture and sell wildlife as pets, use them for medicinal purposes or kill them for their body parts. The destruction of rainforests in Borneo and Sumatra is therefore not only a conservation emergency, but a major animal welfare crisis as well.
Wildlife such as orangutans have been found buried alive, killed from machete attacks, guns and other weaponry. Government data has shown that over 50,000 orangutans have already died as a result of deforestation due to palm oil in the last two decades. This either occurs during the deforestation process, or after the animal enters a village or existing palm oil plantation in search of food. Mother orangutans are also often killed by poachers and have their babies taken to be sold or kept as pets, or used for entertainment in wildlife tourism parks in countries such as Thailand and Bali.
Other megafauna that suffer as a result of this development include species like the Sumatran Tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sun Bear, Pygmy Elephant, Clouded Leopard and Proboscis Monkey. Road networks that are constructed to allow palm oil plantation workers and equipment access to the forest also increase accessibility of these areas to poachers that are looking for these kinds of valuable animals. This allows poachers to comfortably drive to an area to sit and wait for their target where previously they may have had to trek through inaccessible areas of forest.
The establishment of oil palm plantations is often promoted as a way of bringing development to poor, rural regions of Borneo and Sumatra. While palm oil production does provide employment to many people in Southeast Asia, the industry has also had devastating impacts on groups of people in this region. All too often, the government’s main interest in the country’s economy leads them to allow corporations to take the land owned by indigenous peoples for their own financial benefit.
The palm oil industry has been linked to major human rights violations, including child labour in remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. Children are made to carry large loads of heavy fruit, weed fields and spend hours every day bent over collecting fruit from the plantation floor. Heat exhaustion and cuts and bruises from climbing thorny oil palms are commonplace in these cases, and more than often not, children receive little or no pay for their efforts.
With plantations systematically destroying the rainforest land that the local people depend on, communities are continuously finding themselves with no choice but to become plantation workers. Faced with poor and degrading working conditions, some earn barely enough income to survive and support their families. Instead of being able to sustain themselves, indigenous communities become reliant on the palm oil industry for their income and survival, leaving these villagers incredibly vulnerable to the world market price of palm oil which they have no control over.
Sustainable palm oil is an approach to oil palm agriculture that aims to produce palm oil without causing deforestation or harming people.
Sustainable palm oil has been under fire for several years from environmentalists and organizations who feel it is nothing more than a green-washing scheme. This view did not improve within the environmental community upon the formation of the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) in 2004, but many feel that this widely accepted certification scheme has the potential to prevent deforestation in the industry.
The RSPO is a not-for-profit organization that aims to unite stakeholders form all sectors of the palm oil industry, including environmental and social NGOs. RSPO is currently the largest sustainability-focused organization within the palm oil sector, however its standards do not ban deforestation or destruction of peat-lands for the development of oil palm plantations.
Oil palms are originally from West Africa, but were brought to South-East Asia at the beginning of the 20th century. The primary demand for the industry’s expansion came from the British Industrial Revolution. At the time, 250,000 tonnes of palm oil were being exported annually from South-East Asia. This figure has risen to over 60,000,000 tonnes today.
Malaysia was the world’s largest producer of palm oil by the mid 20th century and this stayed true until the Indonesian government began investing into the industry in the 1970s. This expansion officially pushed the country into the lead spot for top producer in 2007 and the nation now supplies the majority of the world’s growing demand for this cheap edible oil.
The use of Palm oil has also been linked to heart disease and cancer! Please for the sake of the planet, your health, and these endangered animals, just SAY NO TO PALM OIL!