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Palm oil production causes many problems and if you don't pay attention, this oil will show up in your cupboard and bathroom. Read our article to find out more about the issue and what you can do to against the destruction!
The Rise of Palm Oil
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.
But why does the world consume so much palm oil? This ingredient slowly creeped into everyday products such as sweets, savoury snacks, cosmetic products, cleaning products, detergents and even biofuels. Speaking of the European Union, 62% of palm oil goes into food and cosmetics, 29% is used in biofuels, and 9% for energy production. More and more people are aware that it is used in cosmetics and food, but the bio fuel problem is nota s well-known. Which is a shame considering 80 percent of the European Union’s increase in palm oil consumption between 2006 and 2012 was due to increased use for biofuel production. Use in food and cosmetics remain almost flat during the period. This is one of the reasons why green NGOs like Friends of the Earth are campaigning against EU promoting the use of biofuels.
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.
Impacts on Environment
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 rainforest 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.
Impacts on Animals
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.
Impacts on People
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.
The fires devastating Indonesia have been called a crime against humanity. In 2015 the haze forced schools to close for days, and tens of thousands of people in Indonesia and Malaysia have sought medical treatment for respiratory problems. As well as Indonesia, the acrid haze from the fires is engulfing neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore and has reached as far as southern Thailand. It’s estimated that the fires could cause more than 100,000 premature deaths in the region.
Sustainable Palm Oil?
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 organisations who feel it is nothing more than a greenwashing 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 organisation 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 organisation within the palm oil sector, however its standards do not ban deforestation or destruction of peatlands for the development of oil palm plantations.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
1. Get informed!
Many products contain palm oil, dozens of names can show this to you ont he ingredients list. Just a few examples of cosmetic ingredients that always or most of the time are made of palm oil:
Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palm Kernel, Palmitate, Palmolein, Palmate, Palmitic Acid, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Palm Stearine, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Hydrated Palm Glycerides, Sodium Palmate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Cetyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol, Glyceryl Stearate, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Glyceryl, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetat, Sodium Laureth Sulphate
On food labels you mostly see palm oil or palm kernel oil, however sometimes they use the vague „vegetable oil” phrase.
2. Choose palm oil free!
Don’t use biofuels, use your car less instead! Read the labels of your favourite products, and look for alternatives, if they contain palm oil. We are here to help in this journey! You can find alternatives by listing the products you are interested in then clicking on the Palm oil free tag in the search bar on the left. You can find all palm oil free products here.
If you see this symbol on the product page, you can be sure it doesn't contain any palm oil!
3. Use your voice!
As a citizen, you can voice concern about deforestation for palm oil development and help to pressure companies, manufacturers and governments to take serious action. Below are a collection of current petitions and letter writing campaigns which need your support.
We shouldn't underestimate the impact of adding our voice to critical campaigns. Companies address their ties to unsustainable palm oil only when they can see it is an issue consumers care about, and one that could therefore impact their profit margins should they chose not to address their negative contribution. So make your voice heard!
4. Help the cause!
As a volunteer, you can help support those working on the frontline to protect forests, wildlife and communities against destructive palm oil development.
The Orangutan Project directly supports centres across Borneo & Sumatra that rescue and rehabilitate orangutans and other wildlife affected by deforestation, as well as fund projects that employ local people to safeguard rainforest from illegal logging. To make a donation, buy merchandise or 'adopt' an orangutan, please visit their website.
Resources: Say no to palm oil, Mongabay, The Guardian