How Palm Oil Ravages Rainforests, Endangers Wildlife and Destroys Communities
Agriculture plays a massive role in today’s global economy. It’s easy to not realize that your salad’s fresh tomatoes are likely flown in from the Netherlands, its asparagus is picked by a Peruvian farmer and the dressing has palm oil harvested in Indonesia. Our complicity in an agricultural system that ships food products across the world via air, land and sea becomes a political decision, one that impacts the environment on a global scale. And palm oil, a popular ingredient in nearly 75 percent of food products, has one of the largest environmentally destructive effects of any wide-spread food products.
It’s estimated that 50 percent of supermarket or drug store products contain palm oil, with China and India being the top consumers of the resource. Besides being a common ingredient in processed foods, palm oil, also known as vegetable oil, is easily found in household cleaning supplies, bio-fuel, body washes, candles, cosmetics and soaps. The demand for large quantities of the resource has led to harvesting methods that cause massive deforestation in Indonesia, which threatens endangered wildlife and negatively contributes to global climate change.
In February, Greenpeace thrust Indonesian deforestation into the public eye by releasing the results of a year-long investigation linking Procter & Gamble to palm oil suppliers in Indonesia that are allegedly involved in destructive deforestation, clear cutting endangered animal habitat and igniting illegal forest fires.
“Procter & Gamble and other household brands must recognize the true costs of irresponsible palm oil production. They need to ensure that their palm oil supply makes a genuine contribution to Indonesia’s development, rather than destroying the future for its people, its wildlife and the global climate on which we all depend,” the Greenpeace report states.
In 2013, P&G purchased about 462,000 tons of palm oil from suppliers, less than 10 percent of which is certified as sustainable, according to the report.
The environmental group has been staging protests against P&G, demanding the company needs to immediately incorporate a plan to use only 100 percent responsible, traceable suppliers for its palm oil products. Greenpeace declared that P&G, as an industry leader, must rise to the occasion and push other companies to maintain the same non-deforestation ethics.
“If a well-known company like Procter & Gamble can show leadership to clean up supply chains, we expect other companies will follow,” said Bustar Maitar, global head of Greenpeace’s Indonesia Forest Campaign, in a report by The Guardian.
In April, P&G declared that the company will require its palm oil and palm kernel oil suppliers to submit plans by Dec. 31, 2015 that demonstrate how they will ensure no deforestation in their supply chain by 2020. The company said it will be “working with suppliers, industry peers, NGOs, academic experts and other stakeholders to promote consistent industry standards and practices for sustainable palm oil sourcing.”
P&G is among 1,300 other companies from 50 countries that are part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an association standard launched in 2004 to promote the growth and use of clean harvesting techniques in order to eliminate deforestation.
However, according to a Greenpeace report in 2013, this idealization is far from reality.
The report states that RSPO members are not fulfilling the group’s requirements, and the organization is actually exacerbating the problem because the mechanisms by which RSPO palm oil is traded offer virtually no supply chain traceability. Consequently, palm oil farmed from responsible sources is getting mixed into that supply from deforestation-causing sources.
“On the ground, we’ve seen lots of RSPO members still doing forest clearing in the area, which is an indication of weak enforcement and a weak standard,” said Maitar in The Guardian article. “RSPO, from my perspective, has been used for green washing by companies who want to expand their plantations into the forest.”
This expansion is leading to problems on a global scale.
A study published in June in the journal Nature Climate Change shows that the Indonesian deforestation calamity is actually a much larger problem than initially thought, and immensely contributes to climate change. The amount of rainforest plowed and burned away for palm oil plantations between 2000 and 2012 is more than 6.02 million hectares (23, 243 square miles), bringing the total amount of forest ravaged for palm oil to more than 10.8 million hectares(41,700 square miles)—a bit larger than Tennessee. The study states due to government corruption, nearly 1 million hectares of destroyed rainforest may be unreported.
In comparison to Brazil, which is a culprit in mass Amazonian deforestation, Indonesian forests are being obliterated at nearly twice the rate. In 2012, 840,000 hectares (3,282 square miles) were removed in Indonesia, while Brazil, which has a forest four times larger, destroyed 460,000 hectares (1,776 square miles).
Rainforest and peatland destruction releases massive amounts CO2 into the atmosphere and causes 60 percent of carbon emissions in Indonesia, making the country the third-worst emitter of greenhouse gases, closely trailing the U.S. and China. It’s estimated that deforestation is responsible for about 20 percent of global CO2 emissions.
But outside of exacerbating global warming, deforestation is also killing off swathes of endangered orangutans and tigers.
Currently, palm oil harvesting is responsible for destroying about a quarter of all Indonesian rainforests and carbon-rich peatlands, which are the lifeblood of endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger and Bornean and Sumatran orangutan, the 2013 Greenpeace report states.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates less than 400 tigers are thought to remain in Sumatran rainforests. The remaining forests are vanishing at a staggering rate — a quarter of a million hectares every year — from deforestation practices including palm oil farming.
The IUCN also lists both species of orangutan as endangered.
“Approximately 66 percent of Indonesia’s palm oil plantations and 87 percent of Malaysia’s plantations involve some form of documented forest conversion, displacing orangutans and disorienting their ability to find food and seek shelter,” a National Geographic article states. “Since plantations are often close to villages, lost orangutans sometimes encroach on human settlement. The results are often deadly.”
One such instance of displacement caused by deforestation that the National Geographic story points out occurred in 2010, “when animal rights group International Animal Rescue recorded ‘unspeakable cruelty’ toward orangutans in Peniraman, remote Borneo, after a female orangutan and her baby wandered nearby a plantation in search of food. Angry workers allegedly hurled stones and waved sticks at the mother before binding the pair with rope and forcing their heads under the water. The mother later died.”
Besides rampant deforestation and killing off endangered animals through cause and effect, the palm oil supply companies that corporations like P&G use are also crippling the indigenous Indonesian people who rely on the forests for their livelihood.
Since 2008, palm oil suppliers such as Wilmar International have been compelling villagers from native Indonesian Dayak tribes to sell off their land, according to an article by The Diplomat. “Gohong is one of the last remaining Dayak villages in Borneo that is still self-sufficient because of their reliance on the forest, which they use to collect food and forest products, including medicine, durian fruits, rattan for weaving and smallholder rubber planting.”
The tribe is still trying to fend off advances by palm oil harvesters.
The palm oil companies assure the tribespersons that selling their land will greatly benefit them through new employment opportunities, but the Gohong tribe has witnessed firsthand how inaccurate that statement is. The neighboring tribes that sold their land have are now facing impoverished conditions because they no longer have access to any of the forest’s resources.
“The people of my village were poor before the company came, and now we are even poorer,” said Abdul Muin, 43, who used to lead the Sei Dusun village in 2008, the Diplomat writes. Palm oil companies pressured his 700-member tribe to sell thousands of hectares of forest land they previously used for crops. “We cannot plant, we cannot drink the water because it is polluted, and there are no more fish,” he said.
In December 2013, Wilmar International, recognizing the negativity its extortions are causing, declared that it will begin only producing palm oil from 100 percent responsible and sustainable methods, but environmental activist groups like Friends of the Earth are saying they’vecontinued to receive reports of ongoing problems with Wilmar’s palm oil operations from groups in Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda and Indonesia.
Placing blame on companies like Wilmar that are still reportedly using unsustainable collection methods is tricky and depends on the accuracy of tracing a company’s supply chain, its manufacturing methods, and what the accusers deem to be sustainable. For some, sustainability means having a carbon-neutral footprint, and for others it’s making sure products can be created and disposed of in an environmentally-beneficial way.
While Greenpeace is correct in stating that corporate behemoths like P&G have a social responsibility to pressure its suppliers into not ravaging the environment for profits, the battle against unsustainable harvesting and manufacturing can’t be won with them alone. Methods that might work for the giants won’t necessarily fly with smaller companies that don’t have the leverage or budget to apply ample pressure to their product supply chain. For them, collaboration is the best method.
“In my opinion, the idea isn’t to say ‘if you don’t do these things we won’t do business with you’,” says Sarah Martinez, sustainability maven for Eco-Products, a company that sells environmentally-conscious disposable products and publicly tracks its carbon footprint. “The reason for that is if we were to walk away from a company for not adhering to those standards, another company can come in that doesn’t have a code of conduct and then the supplier could continue doing damage—in that situation we wouldn’t have helped anything.”
Instead, Martinez is drafting a sustainability code of conduct that will lay out basic expectations of suppliers and manufacturers in terms of environmental and social issues, and then address and try to solve any challenges in meeting the established goals.
It’s a trial and error process, and its success will rely heavily on the accuracy of third-party audits, but if she’s successful it might pave the way for other small companies to mimic the methods and operate on a more environmentally-friendly basis, limiting the impact of future problems like Indonesia’s deforestation.
Solving environmental issues are complicated and often don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. But something must be done about this unethical palm oil farming, whether that’s by the big-name groups or a grassroots movement by small ones. There is still enough time for change, but action is needed now.
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