Think about the products you’ve come into contact with, even just in the past few hours; If you have eaten something processed, washed your hair, put on lipstick, or even lit a candle, you have likely come into contact with palm oil. Palm oil can be used for food products, detergents, cosmetics and even biofuel. However, the rapidly increasing use of palm oil (global production has doubled over the last decade and worldwide demand is expected to double again by 2020!), comes at the expense of the tropical rainforests and all of the endangered species living there.
Palm oil in itself is simple: it is an edible vegetable oil derived from the palm fruit, grown on the African oil palm tree originally in Western Africa, however now 85% of export now comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. Despite the obscurity that comes with production at such a distance, palm oils’ complications are far from unclear.
Indonesia’s palm oil plantations alone covers nine million hectares, an area the size of the state of Maine. 26 million hectares are projected for 2025. These plantations are currently the number one cause of deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia. Today, the destruction of rainforest is the equivalent of 300 soccer fields per hour. As if that wasn’t enough, plantations contribute enormously to the increase of carbon emissions and the decrease of biodiversity.
Tropical deforestation is currently responsible for about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, making it a significant contributor to climate change. Peatlands, which make up much of Indonesia, store vast quantities of carbon. The conversion of a single hectare of Indonesian peatland rainforest releases up to 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide, as any trees that are not cut down are burned.
Rainforests and peatlands are among the world’s most species-rich environments and home to numerous endangered plants and animals, such as orangutans, Sumatran tigers and Bornean rhinos. The destruction of natural habitats deprives the animals of the basis for their existence, causing an irreversible loss of biological diversity. Orangutans are particularly vulnerable because they are dependent upon large contiguous forest areas. In search of food, they often get lost in the plantations, where they are regarded as pests. According to the Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP), at least 1,500 orangutans were clubbed to death by palm oil plantation workers in 2006 alone. According to the UN, there is a risk that no wild orangutans will remain outside of protected areas by 2020.
Endangered species are not the only ones threatened, humans as well. 45 million people live in the forests of Indonesia, and the palm oil industry is responsible for about 5,000 land and human rights conflicts. When people oppose, they are usually forcibly displaced. In fact, Sungai Beruang, a small village in the middle of a big palm oil plantation 40,000 hectares in size, was destroyed by the palm oil company Wilmar, using security forces, bulldozers, and guns to storm the village.
So, what can you do? Be vigilant about the what’s on the ingredient list of your packaged food and other items. Palm oil can be substituted and will be substituted for a more ethical and sustainable oil if consumers demand it. Be that mindful consumer for your own health, and the planet.
This post was written by a guest writer
Marisa Weinstock: Urban High School, San Francisco CA
Marisa’s interest in environmental sustainability was sparked by sustainability awareness at her middle school, Marin Country Day School, and began making a more concious change to make her daily habits more environmentally friendly in eighth grade when she volunteered at TTG. Other than being a student, she is part of the health initiative club at her school, an avid tennis player, and has a strong interest in learning and educating others about how they can be green and make a positive difference in the world.