Palm Oil: The Other Kind of Oil Spill
By Elissa Sursara
Max laid hidden beneath the charred remains of a palm oil tree. He was frightened, injured, and falling in and out of consciousness.
I clicked my tongue and inched closer, hoping to soothe him. He eyed me curiously, hugging tightly to the branches. All around, the Tanjung Puting National Park burned, accidentally set alight by plantation workers who had cleared the surrounding land to harvest the palm oil plant. Separated from his family, Max had fallen casualty to the plantation fire, sustaining burns to his face and body.
In a swift move, I threw Max onto my back and raced toward the rescue team a few hundred meters away. As the smoke filled my lungs and hit my face, I felt Max’ grip become loose and his body become limp. Eventually his breathing stopped, and he died.
Like thousands of orangutans before him, Max was the victim of a different kind of oil spill: the trade in palm oil.
Palm oil monoculture is palming off orangutans in record numbers. Today, less than 70,000 orangutans exist in small wild pockets in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. Populations are patchy and both species of orangutan are considered endangered, with conversion of land for palm oil plantation believed to be the species’ biggest threat.
Today, the controversial palm oil process is again at the forefront of environmental news, with Greenpeace staging international protests against a multinational consumer goods company for allegedly using palm oil tied to a supplier with links to tropical forest destruction.
Found in some 75 percent of everyday products, palm oil (sometimes known as vegetable oil) is the edible oil derived from the fleshy middle layer of the fruit of the oil palm. It acts as a cooking agent and is a popular household ingredient. As of 2010, it was the most widely used edible oil in the world, holding approximately 32 percent of the world’s oil market. Palm oil is found in McDonalds, Cadbury chocolates, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, KFC and KFC packaging, Dove and Avon personal care products, Herbal Essence shampoo, Clinique cosmetics, Tim Tams, Kit-Kats and Malteasers, Ritz crackers, Colgate and Palmolive toothpaste, Mars Incorporated chocolates and in Mary Kay, Covergirl, Lancome, Sephora, and Urban Decay cosmetics.
Scientists predict the average consumer uses at least one palm oil product per day.
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. Since plantations are often close to villages, lost orangutans sometimes encroach on human settlement. The results are often deadly.
In 2010, 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.
To resolve the palm oil problem, environmental organizations have proposed sustainable palm oil process like a “no deforestation” policy suggested by Greenpeace. The initiatives seek to effectively reduce the pressure on endangered orangutans and their habitats, inherently safeguarding their populations.
WWF has pointed out: “other big palm oil consumers such as Unilever, Ferrero, L’Oreal, Delhaize, Kellog and the world’s biggest palm oil trader, Wilmar International, have all committed to no deforestation.”
Consumer support is also important in the protection of orangutans from harmful palm oil operations, WWF said, which can be facilitated by “palming off” unsustainable palm oil product.