So much of my two weeks in Sumatra (and then few days in Malaysia) seemed to come back to one thing – palm oil – so I thought the issue deserved a whole blog post. As well as the illegal pet trade, the main reason for orangutans being critically endangered is because of deforestation caused by the palm oil industry (as well as timber logging). The orangutans, along with the sumatran rhino, elephant, tiger and thousands of other species, are running out of places to live. Right now there are huge fires raging through Indonesia to clear land for palm oil – these fires are destroying habitat, killing wildlife, releasing carbon (especially those on peat land), and ruining the health of the entire population who are suffering badly from the smoke. These fires started during my second week in Sumatra, and they’re still burning now (to date, that’s 8 weeks of burning forests) Its a huge global catastrophe of terrifying proportions – read George Monbiot’s piece on it, and how the media coverage of the crisis is, well, absolutely zero.
Palm oil is a vegetable oil used in about 50% of the products found in our supermarkets – including biscuits, bread, margarine, shampoo, toothpaste, makeup, crisps and soap, as well as biofuels. It’s originally an African plant, but today 85% of the world’s palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. The good thing about palm oil is it’s super productive – it has a much higher yield per hectare than other sources of oil, such as rapeseed or soy. However, due to the places it is grown, the palm oil industry is directly causing astronomical amounts of deforestation of primary rainforest, the burning of peat (and so the release of huge amounts of carbon) and the destruction of homes of already endangered animals. And its in high global demand because it’s cheap. Its a conservation crisis.
Annoyingly I didn’t take any photos of palm oil plantations (in that way when something is absolutely everywhere, you forget to stop and take a photo), but Hayli who I was on the trip with got the few in this post. The oil is produced from the palm nuts of large palm trees (they start producing after 3 years) – the nuts have a reddish outter shell and grow in large bunches.
The palms are grown in huge monoculture plantations – the plants drain all the surrounding area of nutrients (and require large amounts of water) so nothing else can grow around them, unlike the rubber plantations (which used to dominate these areas until synthetic rubber became cheaper) which allow a certain amount of other natural growth around them and so aren’t quite so monocultured. These plantations will be owned by large corporations, sometimes removing people from their land and nearly always burning down rainforest to clear space. This happens in areas designated as National Parks and sometimes even approved by the government. Individuals grow palms on their land too, often removing all their fruit trees or other vegetables as they can make more money from the palm. But this is leading to a dependence on one crop which does not provide a sustainable future – there are small rumblings from local people in North Sumatra where I stayed (and probably elsewhere) that people should grow a variety of crops and not just palm, but this is certainly not the dominant view.
The large industries then process the nuts in heavily guarded factories, and there is of course a certain argument that this provides jobs for local people. Individuals growing palm will leave piles of the nuts out on the road side to be collected by trucks and be paid the going rate – we saw this happening absolutely everywhere:
This leads to one of the many problems with the term ‘sustainable palm oil’. In 2004 RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) was set up to try and clean up the industry, help stop the deforestation and stop people being kicked off their land. RSPO is made up of all the involved stakeholders, from those producing the oil to conservation groups. One of the issues with sustainable palm oil is that there is no way to trace where all the nuts have come from. One of the criteria set by RSPO to be ‘sustainable’ is for transparency in production, and yet as we saw everywhere in the area near Coconut, these large factories go around collecting from individuals, whose sustainability has not been traced. Another issue is because the palm trees destroy the land they are grown on by absorbing all the nutrients and water, after a certain amount of time, the land becomes completely dead and can’t even be used to grow the palm trees. The only way to continue growing is to find an area not currently in use by humans (ie primary rainforest) and clear the land. There is no way to grow palm oil sustainably without destroying rainforests, there isn’t enough land – land that’s already in high demand to grow enough food to feed the world. And because there are so many different stakeholders involved with RSPO, they find it so hard to come to any agreements or decisions, and don’t move policies forward.
Large amounts of palm oil are used in food and cosmetics, but using it as a biofuel is currently being debated too. There is a good article here by the Guardian about the industry and whether there are alternatives. Due to its high yield, palm oil is seen as a more productive source in terms of the amount of land needed to produce it, and therefore termed ‘eco’ or ‘biofuel’ even though it is in fact leading to huge deforestation. The best option mentioned in the article is to use used cooking oil, which is something being done in the UK (The Big Lemon Bus Company for example). But I’m not sure how that would work on a larger or global scale.
SO! What can we do about it? Palm oil is an ingredient in products used directly by us everyday consumers, which gives us great power and responsibility to say to corporations that we don’t want rainforests to be destroyed just so we can use a certain brand of makeup or eat this specific packet of biscuits. Look at the ingredients in products you use, and if they contain palm oil then firstly, stop using them, and secondly (and most importantly!) email the company and tell them you are not buying their products until they at least start using sustainable palm oil. Nestle, PepsiCo, Heinz, Kraft Food, Starbucks and Unilever, among many others, are all playing a huge part in this crisis – if even people get in touch, it might just help. Or you can join the Rainforest Action Network SF20Campaign.
The other factor is a big one – we can’t simply replace palm oil with another type of vegetable oil, because the reason we use palm oil in the first place is because its got a much higher yield. If we only used rapeseed oil for example, we’d have to use up even more land trying to produce the same amount of oil. Scientists are looking at real alternatives to palm oil (see this Guardian article on using yeast instead) but in the meantime, I’m doing all that I can do remove the need for those products in the first place. This is a step further than I’ve been doing in the past, so I’m reading up on products and trying to find alternatives, such as removing the need for shampoo by using bicarbonate of soda (oh yes!) and buying fresh bread and freezing it as palm oil is used in packaged bread. More on this in my next post 🙂
RSPO is made up of large companies who rely on us buying into their marketing strategies that we ‘need’ certain brands or products in order to survive. So of course they want us to believe that sustainable palm oil is the future, because if we didn’t keep buying their products they wouldn’t keep making billions of dollars. I’m going to see if I can remove the need for these products, mostly by buying less processed food and using less cosmetics, and so reduce the amount of vegetable oil I consume (whether its palm or other), it’s going to be an experiment! But if we don’t do something, the Sumatran orangutan could be extinct within 10 years, and considering they are about 98% genetically similar to humans, seems about one of the worst things we could do as a species.
I’m learning a lot the more I look into this too, so get informed and help protect the rainforests and everything they hold. Here are some good other sources of information:
Chester Zoo have a Palm Oil Campaign, including which products you should avoid buying
Say No to Palm Oil – website written by 19 year old Australian Thomas, it gives good overviews of the various issues
The Palm Oil Debate – the Guardian have been running this debate, featuring different articles and view points on the issue
Some of this makes for depressing reading – get the facts, stop using palm oil products and write to companies that do use it saying as a consumer you want them to be more responsible and find alternatives. This is a conservation issue that individuals can actually make a massive difference!