Palm Oil: The Devil in Disguise

By on March 4, 2019 in Uncategorized

Rainforest in Sumatra – Picture: SOS (Sumatran Orangutan Society)

Deforestation, animal cruelty, climate change and the collapse of vital ecosystems are some problems that the palm-oil industry entails. The palm-oil industry is one of the biggest causes of deforestation of rainforests all across the world today, the Sumatran rainforest being one of them. Due to the palm-oil plantation, Indonesia has the highest rate of deforestation in the world, and during recent years they’ve even managed to clear twice as much forest compared to South America. Sadly for the Sumatran rainforest, the end is in sight.

Palmitate, Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, Vegetable Oil and Stearic Acid are 4 of over 200 names for ingredients that mostly, if not completely derive from palm-oil. Maybe you’ve heard of them before, maybe not – but that does not deny the fact that palm oil most probably can be found in over half of the products in your household. Peanut butter, chocolate, detergent, shampoo and even bread often contains palm-oil, meaning that even though you don’t cook with it you most certainly eat and use it on a daily basis. Palm-oil is the most universally used vegetable oil on the planet, with tens of millions of tons being produced annually. The palm-oil production is such large-scale that it accounts for over 30% of the world’s vegetable oil production. Perhaps most people think that it’s just another harmless ingredient, present in almost every product we use. Sadly though, the palm-oil industry has devastating effects.

As commonly known, in order to produce palm-oil, land and forests must be cleared to space for palm-oil plantations. According to the WWF it has been suggested that approximately 5 football fields worth of rainforest clear out each second. The large-scale clearing of rainforests in Indonesia bring about a number of devastating consequences for both the environment and wildlife, which depend on these forests as well as the ecosystems within them.

Due to the unsustainable palm-oil production, one-third of mammal species in Indonesia are critically endangered, which creates an unbalance in the ecosystems. For instance, an estimated 1000-5000 orangutans are killed each year – yet, the Orangutans play a vital role in the ecosystem and the forest’s existence. Sadly many other animals besides the Orangutan hold the same fate, such as the Sumatran tiger, rhinoceros, pygmy elephant and many more.

Furthermore, the deforestation contributes to easier accessibility for poachers. For instance, places where they previously had to trek to are now connected to different road networks. As a result of this, not only are animals killed due to deforestation – but also due to poachers who capture and sell wildlife for various purposes. According to an article published in the Guardian, scientists fear that the end of the forests is approaching quickly – and that several species could be extinct within 20-30 years.

Besides wreaking havoc in the ecosystems and wildlife, palm oil production also significantly contributes to global warming. Deforestation often includes the burning of timber and remaining forest, placing Indonesia on the third place for greenhouse gas emitters – in the world.

The production of this widely used vegetable oil undoubtedly poses a threat to the environment and various animals. However, something that I have yet to mention is the impact it has on the people of Indonesia: having been connected with the exploitation of villagers, child labour, violation of human rights, increased violence and so on. The establishment of plantations has in some cases indeed increased employment in certain regions, however the bad impacts outweigh the good ones by far: such as land owned by indigenous people being taken away from them. Production is starting to take place in forests of which communities have lived off of hundreds of years, giving them no other choice but to become plantation workers. Besides having to deal with bad working conditions, villagers also receive such a meager pay that they can barely provide for themselves. With a lack of options villagers are becoming more and more dependent on the palm oil industry for their survival, leaving them vulnerable to the market price of palm oil having no control over it whatsoever. Of Indonesia’s national population of over 242 million people, a baffling 27% who rely on the forests are directly affected by the palm oil industry. In an interview with the Guardian, a village leader from Teluk Meranti states the following:

‘’ We would die for this [forest] if necessary. This is a matter of life and death. The forest is our life. We depend on it when we want to build our houses or boats. We protect it. The permits were handed out illegally, but now we have no option but to work for the companies or hire ourselves out for pitiful wages ‘’

Reading this you may wonder if the Indonesian government is taking active measures towards solving this problem, the answer is: yes, but not effectively. With the palm oil industry bringing in great profits, public officials prefer not to clamp down on it entirely. In an interview with greenbiz, Alan Townsend, dean of the Nicholas School of Environment at Duke University argues:

‘’There are benefits to palm oil which cannot be ignored. Palm is one of the most productive crops on the planet, with the ability to grow in a remarkable range of places. Couple that with large profit margins, an incredible diversity of uses for palm oil and a lack of economically competitive substitutes, and you can quickly see why the industry has grown so rapidly.’’

Commitment has been seen from the Indonesian government’s side, such as moratoriums and a proposal of merging the country’s ministry of environment and ministry of forestry with a hope of better cooperation. However, the chairman for Greenpeace Indonesia is skeptical of the proposal, stating that it wouldn’t necessarily guarantee balanced decision-making between the authorities. Long story short, without major changes to palm oil-production and global consumption: laws, treaties and so on will barely have any impact.

On the other hand, there are some measures that you as an individual can take to help fight this issue, such as simple lifestyle changes. For instance you can try avoiding products containing palm-oil, and conduct some research to raise not only your awareness but hopefully those around you as well. Furthermore, voicing your concern about the topic and taking actions such as signing petitions and pressuring companies, can hopefully make a difference.

What about certified sustainable palm oil, also known as CSPO? Is that a possible solution you as an individual can turn to? Well, to briefly explain it’s palm oil that’s been certified by the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), a non-profit international organisation, according to specific criteria. The certification process requires that oil growers work towards credible sustainability standards that define good environmental and social practices within the production. CSPO is definitely better than the non-sustainable alternative, and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil argues that we simply can’t replace palm oil, because the demand for it is so big. Palm oil has unique properties and is very cheap, making it an ideal ingredient for many companies to use in their products. The RSPO states that global food demand is huge, and thus replacing palm oil with other types of vegetable oil would nevertheless have negative effects. Therefore, they don’t strive towards replacing it completely, but towards a more sustainable production of it. However, many criticize the RSPO for still allowing production of palm-oil that is detrimental to the environment, such as planting of palm oil on peatlands. Peatlands play a big role in storing the world’s carbon, thus the destruction of these are of great concern to environmental groups and NGOs. Furthermore their certification standard is considered somewhat weak, and because many opinions have to be taken into regard when making decisions in the RSPO, little change has been made in the last 10 years. To conclude, CSPO is always a better alternative than non-sustainable palm oil, although it’s far from a solution to the problem.

About thirty years ago, Sumatra, the world’s sixth largest island was full of tigers, elephants, rhinos, orangutans and other forms of wildlife. Sadly, in an outburst of development they have been almost completely overrun in a single generation due to global businesses, industries and consumption. Hopefully, cleaning up the palm oil industry, establishing policies and developing palm-oil substitutes will help combat the problem: but we’re not really there yet.

Sources used, great for more in-depth reading about the subject: