Earlier this year I was lucky enough to spend some time in Malaysian Borneo whilst travelling South East Asia, the highlight of my time there was undoubtable, cruising down the jungle rivers spotting the local wildlife and searching for the famous ‘man of the forest’, the Orangutan. However, there was a clear feeling everywhere I went that there is trouble in paradise. The pockets of jungle are been engulfed by an ocean of agricultural take over. It was clear to see that palm oil (Elaeis guinensis) plantations are taking over South East Asia, however many of the other people I was with had no idea what these devastating plantations even are.
The global demand for palm oil has soared in recent years, currently 10.7million hectares worldwide, which is an increase of 168% since 1960. However, despite the fact that it’s the consumer driven western world who are utilising the vast majority of the crop, the burden of the production is been put onto the tropics. Malaysia and Indonesia have become the leading producers of palm oil, exporting around 15 million metric tons a year each.
The popularity of this product has rocketed due to its versatility as a vegetable oil and the fast turnaround of cultivation. The oil taken from this simple palm tree is now used in almost half of the things you find in your local supermarket. It’s used as a binding and shining agent in products such as ice cream, chocolate and margarine, as a base in most ready-to-eat meals. It’s also used in most confectionery products to give a smooth texture in products like soap, shampoo, lipsticks and wax.
By consuming these products we are unwittingly contributing to one of our planets biggest environmental disasters. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the size of 300 football fields of rain forest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates 98% of Indonesia’s forest may be destroyed by 2022. This destruction is taking place in some of the world’s most bio-diverse regions, meaning the removal of habitat for many endemic species which are now at serious risk of extinction due to the fact we have destroyed their homes.
Keystone species like the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next 5-10 years, and Sumatran tigers less than 3 years. These jungles offer a staggering variety of the most spectacular species. The Sumatran Rhinoceros, sun bear, Pygmy Elephant, clouded Leopard and the Proboscis Monkey are just a handful of species which are very close to been pushed beyond the point of no return. Over 90% of orangutan habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years, the UN have called this ‘a conservation emergency’. An estimated 1000-5000 orangutans are killed each year for the production of these mammoth plantations. Humans share 97% of our DNA with these beautiful ‘men of the forest’ and yet we are killing our orange cousins at the most alarming rates. If we cannot do anything to protect these iconic creatures then I fail to see much hope when it comes to protecting humans of our planet.
Furthermore, it’s not only the direct loss of habitat that is causing problems. Land erosion causes the rivers to be heavily polluted, running all the way to the tropics beautiful coastal reef systems. The deforestation increases accessibility of animals to poachers who capture and sell wildlife as pets, use them for medicinal purposes or kill them for their body parts. The removal of the native forests involves the burning of vast areas in order to clear space for the plantations. This leads to the emission of immense quantities of smoke into the atmosphere making Indonesia the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. Finally, the industry has also been linked to major human rights violations, including child labour in remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia.
With all of this said, it is hard to believe that such a destructive system is so widely accepted worldwide. In order to try and do something about these issues the roundtable on sustainable palm oil (RSPO) was put together by the environmental community. The RSPO is a multi-stakeholder organisation that was founded in 2004 as a response to pressure from the negative attention the industry was getting for its environmental and social impacts. The RSPO is widely criticised for different reasons, firstly it still permits planting on peatlands and secondary forests. Many environmentalists and organisations feel that the RSPO is nothing more.
than a greenwashing scheme, with only 4 % of global supply (1.5m tonnes) currently certified sustainable and it doesn’t look like the RSPO are the answer to this global dilemma. Furthermore, it is the global nature of this dilemma that leads to perhaps the best chance of stopping it. The disaster is led by consumerism as the global market is unwittingly fuelling the industry by buying products which do not clearly display the fact they contain palm oil. In 43 of Britain’s 100 bestselling grocery brands, representing £6bn of the UK’s £16bn annual shopping basket for top brands, palm oil is pumped in to all of our lives.
However, avoiding all palm oil is not the ‘silver bullet solution’ to this complex issue (as the alternatives available to replace palm oil require even more land), ensuring the products we use are not linked to deforestation is an important step to take. Look out for the RSPO label or the green palm label, these products are likely to be less harmful to the environment. However, as mentioned the reliability of this guarantee is questionable. You can be an actively conscious consumer by avoiding brands such as Heinz, Kellogg, Kraft, Warbutons, Hovis, Kingsmill, Flora, Clover, Persil and Dove. Comprehensive lists and techniques to avoid palm oil are available on the internet, and by searching with tps://info.ecosia.org/what, every time you search the internet their ad profits go towards planting trees in the tropics.
It is clear that something must be done to help alleviate the troubles we are causing by consuming such a destructive product. More needs to be done to sanction large corporations who use unsustainable products. More needs to be done to help alleviate the destruction of deforestation, trees must be planted and reserves interlinking the remaining populations of animals need to be put into place to keep those endemic populations at a sustainable population level. More needs to be done to inform the mass population of how they are unwittingly contributing to one of the world’s largest environmental atrocities.