Palm Oil Deforestation
What You Can Do About It
A brief introduction to Palm oil
Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil that comes from the palm fruit, which grows on the Elaeis guineensis or simply African oil palm. Palm oil trees grow naturally in tropical forests, and originate from west and south-west Africa.
FIGURE 1. Top 10 Palm Oil-Producing Countries, 2012 (Thousands of Tons of Oil Produced).
Palm oil trees were introduced by Dutch colonists to Indonesia and Malaysia in the late 19th century and have been planted extensively to satisfy global demand. Now, Indonesia and Malaysia together make up over 85% of global palm oil production.
Especially in Indonesia palm oil production has soared in recent years. It is a significantly more profitable commodity for farmers than traditional farming and has helped lift many people out of poverty. According to Indonesia’s Ministry of Industry, the palm oil industry employs 4.5 million people, and is the single biggest export product of the country.
Why is Palm Oil an issue at all?
Palm oil destroys rainforests and kills orangutans
Palm oil is a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the orangutan, pygmy elephant and the Sumatran rhino. In Indonesia alone, a forest area the size of Belgium is lost every 2 years (let this sink in).
While the deforestation directly contributes to the population decline of orangutans, the good news is that orangutans are resilient and can adapt to some level to new environments such as palm oil plantations. However, deforestation severely deteriorates the orangutan population indirectly through the increased killings by farmers protecting their harvest and through the new infrastructure making it easier for poachers to get further into the rainforest.
A recent study from 38 international institutions found that nearly 150,000 orangutans were killed in the period 1999 – 2015 in Borneo. In the last 75 years, the population has dropped by 80% to an estimated population of 104,000 orangutans on the island. And according to the researchers it will further fall by at least 45,000 by 2050 due to habitat loss alone without fresh efforts to protect them.
Palm oil is a major source of CO2 emissions
In preparing rainforest land for palm oil plantation, the most valuable trees are cut down and removed first. What remains is burned. Tropical deforestation is currently responsible for about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions according to the IPCC, and the plantations to produce it account for 10% of permanent global cropland .
Palm oil facilitates child labor and inflicts local conflicts
The USA ranks the palm oil industry as one of the worst for forced and child labour , where children “carry large loads of heavy fruit, weed fields, and spend hours every day bent over collecting fruit from the plantation floor” for little compensation. The Indonesian government claims that “thousands of communities are involved in conflicts with companies, the state and each other” consequent to the industry.
Palm Oil and Tanjung Puting National Park
While Central Kalimantan has one of the fastest rates of oil palm expansion in the world, an unaware visitor to for example Tanjung Puting National Park – where we offer Borneo orangutan tours – may not even notice this.
If you look closely, though, you will see that as you cruise through the Sekonyer river that the Tanjung Puting National Park is on one side where you will have all the activities, while the other side is private land with palm oil trees.
We have noticed that some of our clients in Tanjung Puting National Park tend to blame “palm oil farmers” for the harmful effects of this industry to the rainforest destruction and the killing of orangutans.
While we understand this sentiment, we also recognise that local farmers simply try to keep themselves and their families out of poverty. Moreover, harvesting palm oil on private land is not an environmental issue if that land was already used for agriculture.
But then whom to blame? Well, it’s a complex issue, but instead of pointing at farmers, we think it is better to increase scrutiny on the following players:
The big industries – such as BW Plantations in Kalimantan – that expand their activities through deforestation and stealing land from native communities.
The village of Tanjung Harapan on the Sekonyer river in Tanjung Puting has over 100 families who are actively opposing the palm oil plantation and its expansion and demand the rights of the Sekonyer community to be returned.
Your political representatives that have not yet advocated the mandatory labelling of palm oil in your daily products to enhance customer awareness
The consumer. Let’s face it… in the end the palm oil industry just has a demand to meet… While blaming ourselves is inconvenient, it also means that we hold the key to solve the issue.
Then Why Is Palm Oil Used?
Palm oil simply serves the global demand for vegetable oil, accounting for about half of all packaged products in the supermarket according to WWF.
Compared to other vegetable oils such as soy, rapeseed, coconut or corn, palm oil has a superior yield and it produces up to 3-8 times more oil per unit area! Its high melting point make it smooth and easy to spread and it is the cheapest vegetable oil to produce and refine.
FIGURE 2. A comparison of the land efficiency for different vegetable oils relative to palm oil.
Therefore replacing palm oil with other oil crops would just displace the damaging biodiversity losses, rather than end the ecological destruction associated with palm oil .
Which Products Contain Palm Oil?
Well, the better question is which products do NOT contain palm oil. Fifty percent of all packaged products in the super market contain palm oil according to the WWP.
It provides the foaming agent in virtually every shampoo, liquid soap or detergent. It is widely used in tooth paste, frozen meals, sauces, oat meal and cleaning products. The below illustration gives you an impression of how you consume palm oil on a daily basis.
FIGURE 3. A Day in Your Life with Palm Oil, based on a design by Philadelphia Zoo (edited for readibility).
Yet, most consumers are not aware of their immense palm oil consumption, and even if they want to be more conscious about it they struggle because palm oil is rarely clearly labeled in the ingredients list.
Ingredients list for palm oil
Many products that use palm oil aren’t clearly labeled. Palm oil and its derivatives can appear under many names. Here are some of the used synonyms for palm oil according to the WWF.
INGREDIENTS. Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol
CONTAINS. Palm oil
How Can You Fight Palm Oil
The most effective solutions come from the demand side as suppliers are going to keep clearing forests until consumers force them to stop. Consumer awareness is needed about the link between the purchased products and the environmental disaster they’re causing. Beyond these generalities, here are 4 concrete actions you can take:
1. Consume Less Palm Oil
The most effective measure is simply to reduce your palm oil consumption. Use fresh ingredients for your meals as opposed to frozen dishes or processed food and switch your hand soap, tooth paste, shampoo or brand of biscuits to a sustainable alternative.
With such small changes to your shopping habits, you reduce your palm oil consumption and influence directional changes for global corporations.
2. Look for the RSPO Label
Major palm oil producers, consumers and the WWF established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is a certificate for palm oil that is produced in a sustainable manner.
There are still some issues with the RSPO label. It does not rule out the clearing of the rain forest, climate protection is ignored, compliance with the criteria is not consistently reviewed, and violations are rarely punished. Greenpeace even considers the RSPO to be “little more than greenwash”.
Nevertheless, it is the strongest certification for sustainable palm oil. Moreover, the RSPO management recognises the criticism and tries to address them with the help of NGOs.
If you aren’t sure whether a company uses sustainable palm oil as an ingredient, use the rating tool of the WWF.
Fortunately, there are many bright conservation organisations, activists and communities fighting the palm oil industry and rehabilitating wildlife suffering from it. Think of International Animal Rescue, Rainforest Action Network, Friends for National Parks Foundation and Save our Borneo.
However bright they are, this is a fight between David and Goliath and they depend on kindhearted volunteers and sponsors. Make a difference by financially supporting them.
4. Promote Eco-Tourism
You may think “Isn’t the most sustainable way of travelling, not to travel at all”? Mass tourism has severely impacted Indonesia, with fresh water reserves cemented for hotels, beaches littered with debris from revellers, and wild animals captured and displayed for entertainment.
While not travelling has the least direct environmental damage, the indirect damage could be much worse as it forces local governments to find other income streams and further strengthens the palm oil industry.
Instead, we advice to travel sustainably. Ecotours incentivise locals to conserve the rainforest and not destruct it. Choose a tour operator that genuinely cares about the environment. Read more about the importance of ecotourism in this post.
It’s surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on earth.
– David Attenborough –
A Final Word
We have written this article to enhance costumer awareness about the devastating effects of our daily lives on the beautiful rainforests and wildlife in Indonesia and Malaysia.
We realise that we only reach a very small audience and that our contribution is tiny. But if we all would make a tiny contribution, couldn’t the sum add up to something immense? Couldn’t we make the difference together?
We only reach a small audience. Please help us spread the awareness and share this article with your network.