Ninety percent of the world’s palm oil is produced (50 million tons per annum) in Malaysia and Indonesia – to make our peanut butter, cookies, instant noodles, chocolates, soaps and cosmetics; an area the size of 6 football fields of rainforest is destroyed each minute.
What Is Unsustainable Palm Oil?
The Independent explains it brilliantly:
Step one: log a forest and remove the most valuable species for furniture. Step two: chainsaw or burn the remaining wood releasing huge quantities of greenhouse gas. Step three: plant a palm-oil plantation. Step four: make oil from the fruit and kernels. Step five: add it to biscuits, chocolate, margarine, soaps, moisturizers and washing powder. At breakfast, when millions of us are munching toast, we're eating a small slice of the rainforest.
Impact On Environment
A 2012 study by Indiana University researchers – noting that by 2007–2008 oil palm directly caused 27 percent of total deforestation, and a 40 percent of peat land deforestation – warned that by 2020, 40% of regional and 35% of community lands will be cleared for oil palm, generating 26% of net carbon emissions. Intact forest cover will decline to 4 percent, and the proportion of emissions sourced from peat lands will increase to 38 percent.
The World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) estimates that on the island of Borneo – divided between Malaysia, Indonesia and tiny Brunei – 30 percent of the forest has vanished over the last four decades, mainly because of oil palm plantations and logging. With two degrees of warming, Borneo’s rich biodiversity in marine, reptile and amphibian species will be severely affected, and potentially devastated by any warming beyond this level by 2050. The WWF adds:
In recent years, almost a fifth of oil palm expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia has taken place on peat swamps. When these peat swamps are cleared and drained they release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Up to 66% of all climate change emissions from oil palm plantations come from the 17% of plantations on carbon-rich peat soils.
Who can forget the raging forest fires, caused by illegal slash-and-burn practices across Indonesia in 2015? These fires cloaked Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia in a smoky haze; grounded flights, shut schools, and forced more than 500,000 people to seek medical treatment for acute respiratory tract infections. Not to mention, the fires cost the Indonesian government more than $30 billion.
Impact On Animals
The palm oil industry in Malaysia and Indonesia is not only polluting rivers and contributing up to 20 percent to global warming by destroying the wildlife-rich forests; palm oil plantations are placing endangered species like orangutans, Sumatran tigers, pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinos and Malayan sun bears in grave danger of extinction.
Last year, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) observed that a century of deforestation, illegal logging, hunting and expansion of agro-industrial plantations, have combined to isolate orangutans –native to Indonesia and Malaysia – to only the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.
The environmental impact of climate change exacerbated by the deforestation of Borneo could result in severe floods, temperature rises, reduced agricultural productivity and other negative effects. But orangutans’ solitary nature and slow reproductive rates leave them particularly vulnerable to forest loss.
The massive conversion of Borneo’s forests for agricultural development – primarily oil palm – will leave the endangered orangutans fragmented and facing extinction in a number of areas. Models incorporating projected changes to climate and to land cover indicate that 68-81% of the current orangutan habitat might be lost by 2080.
Impact On People
Palm oil plantations are not only destroying the planet, they are also threatening the indigenous people and their livelihoods. The big corporations have grabbed the local people’s lands without their consent, forcing them to leave their homes to make way for palm oil plantations. Deprived of food sources upon which they’ve historically relied, they are forced to become plantation workers who barely earn enough to survive and support their families under poor and degrading working conditions.
A 2010 Greenpeace investigation found that social conflict, including land rights and resource disputes, is often caused by plantation expansion. The investigation revealed that there are more than 500 social conflicts in the Indonesian oil palm sector, mainly over lands, labor disputes, disharmony of corporate community partnerships and criminalization of villagers. High profile political scandals involving illegal issuance of permits for natural forest conversion, and for oil palm concessions within protected areas and national parks have also caused major conflict.
The palm oil industry is also linked to major human rights violations, including child labor in remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. According to the International Labor Organization:
9 to 17 years olds work as palm pickers, collecting loose palm fruits, carrying sacks of palm fruits to carts, and pushing carts to a collection site – the average load carried is 10 kilograms over a distance of 250 meters. Nearly 75% do not have gloves, nearly 90% have no training before working, 68% experience heat exhaustion at a “heavy heat stress level”, and 9 out of 10 children are paid in cash, but parents received 84% of their child’s earnings.
What Is Sustainable Palm Oil?
According to WWF, around 18 percent of the world’s palm oil production was certified sustainable in 2014, up from 10 percent in 2011. It is now working to move palm oil markets away from unsustainable practices through its Market Transformation Initiative. Although the Switzerland-based Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is active in the "development, implementation, and verification of global standards for sustainable palm oil," its standards do not ban deforestation or destruction of peat lands for the development of oil palm plantations.