Palm Oil: Destruction in Every Drop

In 2012 I travelled to Borneo for what was supposed to be a two week holiday, and ended up being a two and a half year stay. It was a hard place to leave. For the most part still undiscovered and light in tourism, Borneo is a hidden world of ancient jungle and some of the most unique wildlife on the planet.

For me it was love at first sight. Borneo felt like a spiritual home, a place where I could be myself, indulge in nature and live a life free from stress and worry. In my mind, it was pointless trying to imagine any other place that could rival the beauty of the untouched beaches and jungles we found there.

Then I discovered the dark side of Borneo. It started with our visit to a local orangutan sanctuary where we found out that the species, found only in Borneo and Sumatra, is critically endangered. We learned that there are a number of reasons for this, including logging and poaching. However, the reason that was most alarming and seemed to be causing the most damage was palm oil production. Orangutan conservation group The Orangutan Project state on their website that “Palm Oil Plantations are now the leading suppliers for a global market that demands more of the tree’s versatile oil for cooking, cosmetics, and biofuel. But palm oil’s appeal comes with significant costs. Palm oil plantations often replace tropical forests, killing endangered species, uprooting local communities, and contributing to the release of climate-warming gases. The orangutans that are displaced starve to death, are killed by plantation workers as pests, or die in the fires”.

It’s hard to imagine the rate at which palm oil deforestation is occurring, and in our corner of Malaysian Borneo we didn’t really see any signs of it. Surrounded by sprawling jungles and national parks, the scale of destruction seemed both unimaginable and a world away. That was until the next time we flew into Borneo following a holiday to Singapore. On our previous arrival I had seen the neat rows of what looked like manicured jungle stretching out across the landscape, but hadn’t given it a second thought. This time I knew exactly what I was looking at, and it broke my heart. What had once been primary forest, home to countless rare and exotic creatures, had been torn down and replaced by palm trees. Forever changing the landscape, and destroying the lives of its inhabitants in the process, big businesses had pillaged the land in the name of greed.

Malaysia and Indonesia are the leading producers of palm oil, with approximately 86% of the world’s product coming from the two countries. Unfortunately, the rate at which palm oil plantations are replacing jungle in the region is unsustainable. According to a study by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the rate of deforestation in Indonesia has grown rapidly due to the increased popularity of palm oil. In the 2007 UNEP publication “The Last Stand of the Orangutan“, it is stated: “A scenario released by UNEP in 2002 suggested that most natural rainforest in Indonesia would be degraded by 2032. Given the rate of deforestation in the past five years, and recent widespread investment in oil palm plantations and biodiesel refineries, this may have been optimistic. New estimates suggest that 98% of the forest may be destroyed by 2022.” In fact, according to the Orangutan Project, every hour 300 football fields of precious remaining forest is being ploughed to the ground across South East Asia to make way for palm oil plantations.

The thought of permanently losing the jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia is devastating. The current rates of deforestation are already killing 6000 orangutans per year. In an interview with the Independent last year, Greenpeace Chief Executive Alan Knight warned that “if the current destruction of the rainforest continues, then I have absolutely no hope that any orangutans will remain in the wild“. Asked how long they might survive, Mr Knight said: “I would probably say 10 years if we cannot stop the destruction. I think the Sumatran will go before then if they don’t sort out the situation they are in.”

The destruction of jungle in Borneo and Sumatra isn’t just devastating the habitats of orangutans, of course. Proboscis monkeys, Borneo pygmy elephants, Sumatran tigers, Malayan sun bears, Sumatran rhinos, mouse-deer and Sumatran elephants are just some of the rare and unique species being driven to extinction by this industry. Furthermore, the global impact is something that cannot be ignored. Fast becoming one of the leading causes of climate change, palm oil production is something that affects us all.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists: “when tropical forests are cleared to make way for oil palm plantations, carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas that is the leading cause of global warming; tropical deforestation accounts for about 10 percent of total global warming emissions. But precisely because tropical forests store large amounts of carbon—both in primary (old-growth) forests and secondary (disturbed and regenerating) forests—it is important to protect these lands from oil palm development.”

The palm oil industry has also been linked to a number of human rights violations including child labour in remote parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. In addition, although the industry has created jobs and arguably injected money into some communities; there have been numerous cases of governments allowing large corporations to seize the land on which indigenous people have lived and worked for thousands of years.

No industry that puts profits before the lives of humans, the welfare of animals and the survival of our planet should be supported. As consumers, we have a responsibility to take action against it.

Living in Borneo was an experience that I will always remember as one of the best times of my life. I’ll never forget the freedom and wonder I felt when trekking through the beautiful jungles, swimming in the crystal clear waterfalls and spotting the amazing wildlife. I hope that one day my young nieces and nephews will be able to visit the place I talk so fondly of, and experience what a truly magical place it is. The way things are currently going, that won’t be possible. The jungles I trekked in my twenties could be gone before my nephew reaches adulthood, the last orangutan already a distant memory. This is not the future I want, and it’s not a future any of us should be paying for.

What can I do?

Palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil, and is now found in half of all supermarket products. From pizzas, bread, cakes and biscuits to hair products, body creams and makeup, palm oil is everywhere. Unless you eat an entirely whole food diet, and prepare all your own food at home, you almost definitely consume it at some point during your day. But don’t give up hope; identifying and avoiding the majority of products containing palm oil isn’t as hard as you might think.

As of December 2014 it has been a requirement under EU law to clearly label food products containing palm oil. Although this doesn’t extend to other items such as soaps and makeup, you can either contact the manufacturer or do a quick check on the internet. A handy guide to palm oil-free products can be found here. If you do decide to stop using a product because is contains palm oil, make sure you contact the manufacturer to let them know that’s what you are doing. It’s important to let companies know that we as consumers will not give our money to the palm oil industry.

As well as avoiding palm oil in the products we use, it’s also important to continue to put pressure on the governments and the industry leaders responsible for it’s production. It’s vital that we give our support to groups that work to encourage ethical and sustainable moves within the industry, and petition to bring in stronger laws for palm oil production. RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) is the largest sustainability-focused organisation in the industry. Since forming in 2004 they have gained recognition for their work in ensuring products carrying their label only contain palm oil obtained via sustainable methods. However, at this stage its standards do not ban deforestation or habitat destruction and their stamp of approval therefore does not guarantee an ethical product. That said, it is groups such as these that will make a difference within the industry so it’s important that we work on helping them reach better goals every year.

Finally, support charities such as The Orangutan Project by adopting an orangutan, volunteering, donating or joining their Palm Oil Resistance group. Other charities such as Rainforest Rescue support people on the ground planting trees in Indonesia to try and reforest the region.

However you decide to help, your efforts can, and will, make a difference.

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