By IZILWANE–Voices for Biodiversity on August 12, 2013
Your family carefully sorts your trash and composts table scraps weekly and tries really hard to remember to bring cloth or canvas bags to the grocery store. Some of us drive hybrid cars and support wind power, while others ride a bike to work because they want to reduce their carbon footprint.
We do all of this because we want our children and grandchildren to live on a healthy planet. Going through these inconveniences makes us confident that we are doing all the right things and proud of the message we’re sending our kids. That could be the reason for millions of Americans to feel confused and angry when we feel the full impact of global warming and rising sea levels in the next few years.
Those of us who have had the luxury of time and who have been paying attention have done everything we can to stall the steady rise of earth’s temperature, but many of us remain unaware that we all support one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. President Obama said that climate change is one of the greatest threats facing the world and said, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
But who would have thought that one of the greatest causes of carbon emission is something found in most rooms of our homes? Who would have thought that one of the greatest threats to our well being comes from an Indonesian rainforest? Most Americans can’t even locate Indonesia on a map, and yet about 15 percent of global carbon pollution comes from deforestation – more than the emissions produced from all the cars, buses, trains and airplanes in the world.
It feels as if we are asleep at the wheel, and but sadly we have slept through the alarm, and it is long past the time for America to wake up.
Photo Courtesy of Caroline Braker.
What the heck is Palm Oil?
The oil of palm is a highly versatile, high-yield vegetable oil that is widely used in products, including baked goods, breakfast cereals, cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products; in fact, 51 percent of everything in American stores contains it. It is obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree and is the most consumed edible oil today. Because of its versatility, the demand worldwide has tripled over the last few decades.
So what is the problem with palm oil?
The problem with palm oil is the way in which it is farmed and manufactured. Current estimates indicate 90 percent of the rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia will be replaced by palm oil plantations unless drastic action is taken to find ways of producing it sustainably.
The production of palm oil has given rise to deforestation, plant and animal extinctions, child labor, and land grabs. This led to the creation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2003 to address these big issues head on. The RSPO was an initiative of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), who recognized the need to address some of the larger problems with palm oil.
The standards for sustainable palm oil at the RSPO were set very high. In fact, if applied fully, it could make palm oil one of the most eco-friendly options for vegetable oils in the world. The problem, however, is that the standards are not mandatory for their members. This has led to mass confusion of which RSPO members are working sustainably and which are merely using it to divert criticism.
Environmental groups – including its own founder, the WWF – have declared it a failure, and the WWF went on to join a new certification body, the Palm Oil Innovation Group, in 2013.
Photo Courtesy of Caroline Braker.
What can Americans do then?
We, as Americans with the ability to make an impact – negatively or positively – on palm oil production policies, must make a statement against palm oil that is causing so much global warming. I have created a petition asking Senate to introduce legislation to stop the imports of conventional palm oil – the cause of all that green house gas emissions.
We will not ask for an outright ban, as we understand the jobs of many poor workers in Indonesia and Malaysia depend on palm oil production. We must, however, exercise our own rights for a healthy future for our children and tell these palm oil companies in clear terms that we will not let polluting products to cross our border.
The United Kingdom has created a policy on palm oil use as a government, and this has led to palm oil companies scrambling to lighten their environmental impact. The European Union has made it mandatory to label clearly all products containing palm oil. The expectation there is that any product with palm oil will suffer a drop in sales as Europeans are more aware of the destruction caused by conventional palm oil.
It’s time America spoke up.
To celebrate the first ever World Orangutan Day on August 19, 2013, I will be hand delivering my petition to my senator, Maria Cantwell (D-WA), to introduce legislation to control the imports of palm oil.
You can help by signing the petition here and by writing your own letters to your senator.
– LeAnn Fox, Palm Oil Consumer Action
The roar of chainsaws has replaced birdsong, the once-lush, green jungle scorched to a barren grey. The equivalent of six football pitches of forest is lost every minute in Indonesia.
Tanjung Puting Nat Park – Orang Utan, Proboscis Monkey Camp Leakey –
The disappearance of the trees has pushed thousands of animals—from the birds they harbour and sustain to orangutans, gibbons and black panthers—out of their natural homes and habitats.
They have been replaced by plantations that are too nutrient-poor to support such wildlife, instead dedicated solely to producing fruit that is pulped to make oil used globally in products ranging from food to fuel.
A palm oil tree can yield useable fruit in three years and continue doing so for the next 25 years. But such wealth creation has meant environmental destruction. “We don’t see too many orangutans any more”, said a worker with a weather-beaten face, taking a break in the shade of a hut built on a path gouged out of the forest floor.
Experts believe there are about 50,000 to 60,000 orangutans left in the wild, 80 percent of them in Indonesia’s Borneo and the rest in Malaysia. Exact data on their decline is hard to come by, say primatologists. “What we see now is a contest between orangutans and palm oil for a home,” said Sri Suci Utami Atmoko from National University in Jakarta. “You can judge that the population is depleting from the loss of orangutan habitats.” Gibbons, often recognisable by the rings of white fur that frame their faces, are among the hardest-hit species. “There are 100,000 gibbons in Borneo. But in 15-20 years, there will be more viable populations,” said Aurelien Brule, a French national based in Borneo for 15 years who runs an animal sanctuary. Gibbons rescued from the destruction of their forest homes cannot be returned alone into new wild habitats. “Other pairs protecting their own territory would kill them,” said Brule, adding that rampant deforestation has wiped out sites suitable for single animals. Enlarge A bulldozer that is used in clearing forest land for palm oil plantations in Borneo. The roar of chainsaws has replaced birdsong, the once-lush, green jungle scorched to a barren grey. The equivalent of six football pitches of forest is lost every minute in Indonesia. There is also a human cost, with the permits for plantations resulting in the eviction of indigenous people.
Abdon Nababan, the secretary general of AMAN, an Indonesian indigenous peoples alliance, said there is no exact data but recorded cases of land conflict are in the hundreds, with thousands of people possibly affected. “Palm oil has brought fortune to Indonesia, but it has been gained with blood,” said Jakarta-based forest campaigner for Greenpeace, Wirendro Sumargo. Indonesia, the world’s biggest palm oil producer, has exponentially increased the land dedicated to the commodity from 274,000 hectares (680,000 acres) in the 1980s to 7.32 million hectares in 2009, government documents show. The industry has helped push Indonesia’s GDP growth rate above 6.0 percent every year since 2005, but at the cost of huge tracts of rainforest. An area roughly the size of Denmark was lost between 2000 and 2010 across Indonesia and its neighbour Malaysia, according to a study published last year in the Global Change Biology journal. Despite some backlash around the world, including an unsuccessful attempt in France to push an amendment to quadruple tax on palm oil to discourage consumption—the destruction is unlikely to stop any time soon. Indonesia, which together with Malaysia holds 85 percent of the market, aims to increase production more than 60 percent by 2020. To appease environmental concerns, it last year imposed a moratorium on new permits in primary forests and peatlands. But critics say it is a cosmetic move, with plantations overlapping sensitive environments. One example can be found in the Tripa Peat Swamp Forest, in the northwest of Aceh province, home to endangered species such as Sumatran rhinos and tigers. In this area, “we have evidence that five palm oil firms are doing illegal practices”, said Deddy Ratih, forest campaigner for WALHI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia. Derom Bangun, the chairman of umbrella organisation the Indonesian Palm Oil Board, doesn’t deny the issue but says improvements are being made. “The government has seen (the violations) and has taken steps to fix it. Ultimately we want the palm oil industry to work according to the rules,” he added. In an effort to improve their image, some palm oil firms have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a forum consisted namely of green groups and growers. The WWF, one of the founders of RSPO, admitted that there is still a conservation shortfall. “Generally land allocation for plantations still overlaps with primary forests and peatlands, including in areas that are the habitat of key species,” said Irwan Gunawan, WWF deputy director of market transformation in Indonesia. “We are encouraging the government to pay attention to this,” he added.
After his forest home was destroyed to make room for palm fruit oil plantations in West Borneo, the charred primate pictured above dared to abate his starvation by feeding on the fruit of the trees that replaced his former lush peat jungle.
In an attempt to smoke the animal out of the palm tree it had taken refuge in, villagers accidentally set the entire tree and the orangutan on fire. He plummeted out of the tree and into the care of International Animal Rescue (IAR).
Although originally expected to make a full recovery, IAR reported that the orangutan succumbed to his burns and overall malnourished state when he died last week.
While this specific incident is immensely tragic taken on its own, the orangutan species as a whole is under serious threat in large part because of the world’s demand for cheap palm fruit oil which is fueling the clear cutting and burning of Indonesia’s once-vast rain forests to establish palm plantations.
Orangutans can only be found naturally on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo and are divided into two species based on which island they live. Both species are listed on the IUCN Red List of the mostendangered species in the world. The Bornean orangutan is listed as “endangered,” and its Sumatran cousins bear the burden of being listed as “critically endangered,” and in immediate threat of extinction.
Estimates put the Borneo great apes at numbering about 54,000, and the Sumatran at about 6,600, giving orangutans a spot as one of the World’s Top 25 Most Endangered Primates, according to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.
These close human relatives are arguably the most intelligent of our ape cousins and use tools better than any other non-human primate. As they attempt to live out their lives in the same way they’ve been doing for millennia, their forest homes are being destroyed at a rate of about three football fields every day.
Just in the last 20 years, half of Indonesia’s rain forest has been obliterated, and, as Leila Salazar-Lopez of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) told Voices for our Planet, the government has announced plans to convert an area of virgin forest about the size of Missouri into palm plantations by 2020.
This mass destruction is taking the lives of about 50 orangutans per week, Zoos Victoria in Australiaestimates. And demand for palm oil just keeps increasing. According to RAN, “demand for the oil surged by an average of 2.2 million metric tons worldwide each year between 2000 and 2009.”
While conservationists are projecting that we may see the extinction of these beautiful, long-red-haired apes in the next few decades, it doesn’t take a scientist to do the math. As long as we keep buying products containing palm fruit oil, orangutans will continue to be treated as agricultural pests and subjected to being burned alive in their own homes, shot as they forage for food, imprisoned for the exotic pet trade and tortured in captivity to do tricks for tourists.
Palm oil has become popular with industries from cosmetics to processed food to biodiesel because it is the cheapest of the vegetable oils to manufacture. And it is in everything. A quick scan of all of my favorite green products broke my heart. I was just as responsible for the burning of that orangutan as any of the villagers that set the fire.
My Earth Balance peanut butter and “buttery” spread said simply “Palm Fruit Oil.” My Seventh Generation dish soap and laundry detergents both listed “sodium lauryl sulfate” as one of the first ingredients.
A quick call the Earth Balance revealed that it sources most of its palm oil from Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) members. While this is a step above the majority of companies, is still does nothing to guarantee that orangutans are not being harassed or even killed.
The RSPO was created by NGOs and palm oil stakeholders in an effort to create a way for palm oil to be grown sustainably. The process is not perfect as there are few advantages to being certified. But if more consumers begin demanding that companies source only RSPO certified palm oil, the system would advance.
One of the biggest challenges for consumers is the lack of appropriate labeling for palm oil. Found in more than 60 percent of manufactured goods, it can be listed under more than 200 different names.
The sodium lauryl sulfate in my Seventh Generation laundry detergent is most likely palm-oil sourced (they did not return my call for more information). It can be listed simply as “vegetable oil,” or other common ingredients that come at the price of Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s rain forests and their inhabitants (and all of us for that matter) are cetyl alcohol, linoleic acid or octyl palmitate. Check out this complete list.
The destruction of these forests has made Indonesia the largest emitter of carbon dioxide after the United States and China as the reckless clearing of peat swamp forests releases huge amounts of the gas while leaving a trail of species at risk for extinction like our close relative the orangutan and the mysterious Sumatran tiger, rhino and elephant.
While we might figure out a way to survive a world filled with carbon dioxide gas and devoid of forests, we will have to figure out a way to enjoy it alone.
- It’s Either Orangutans Or Cheap Palm Oil (ipsnews.net)
- Orangutan Burned by Villagers in Indonesia Dies (climateofourfuture.wordpress.com)
A campaign run by environmental activists has helped lead to a 64 percent reduction in palm oil use by eight major food companies in Norway, reports Rainforest Foundation Norway, which led the effort.
Rainforest Foundation Norway and Green Living launched the palm oil campaign last fall highlight links between palm oil consumption and deforestation in Southeast Asia. It aimed to reduce demand for palm oil in the Scandinavian country, where palm oil consumption was roughly 3 kilogram per year, mostly through processed food products.
The campaign asked major food companies to disclose their palm oil use and whether palm oil was certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an eco-certification initiative. Following the survey, the environmental groups published a ‘palm oil guide’ where consumers could look up the palm oil content in the products they buy. The effort went beyond traditional labeling which allowed palm oil to be listed generically as ‘vegetable oil’ or ‘vegetable fat’.
According to Rainforest Foundation Norway, the campaign had an immediate impact — Norwegian food producers started to scale back on, or even phase out, palm oil. Stabburet, which was once one of the country’s largest palm oil buyers, banished palm oil from its products completely, while Mills, the largest buyer, cut use by 95 percent. The result so far is food companies in Norway have reduced palm oil buying by 9,600 metric tons, or 64 percent of last year’s 15,000 tons worth of palm oil. Per capita palm oil consumption in Norway is set to fall to just over 1 kilo per year.
The campaign only targeted food manufacturers, not fast food chains and restaurants, cosmetics producers, or animal feed makers.
Lars Løvold, Director of Rainforest Foundation Norway, said the campaign could be a model for other countries.
“Norwegian food producers have demonstrated that it is possible to produce and sell food without palm oil, avoiding complicity in rainforest destruction,” said Løvold. “The experience from Norway should inspire consumers globally to demand food products which do not contribute to rainforest destruction.”
Palm oil is the most productive of commercial oil seeds but its expansion in recent decades has taken a heavy toll on rainforests and peatlands in Indonesia and Malaysia, which account for nearly 90 percent of global production. Green campaigners have thus targeted major palm oil buyers in an effort to shift the industry toward less damaging practices. In response, the palm oil industry, working with some environmental groups, have set up the RSPO which sets social and environmental criteria for palm oil production. The hope is that buyers are willing to pay a slight premium for RSPO-certified palm oil. Still some activists have criticized the RSPO as not being strong enough and are campaigning for stricter safeguards.
The palm oil industry asserts its crop offers more oil per unit of area than other oilseeds, reducing the need to clear forests relative to other crops. But that argument has failed to win over environmentalists who note that forest clearing for oil palm plantations has not slowed and is now expanding to other parts of the world, including West Africa, Central and South America, Papua New Guinea, and the South Pacific.
Norway is one of the world’s largest supporters of tropical forest conservation. It has committed three billion Norwegian krone ($500 million) per year to slowing deforestation, including billion dollar pledges to Indonesia and Brazil for forest protection programs. The country’s pension fund nevertheless continues to invest in companies associated with forest conversion, a sore point for activists
- Cargill Admits Buying Palm Oil from Illegally Cleared Orangutan Habitat (understory.ran.org)
- Groups say palm oil production threatens rainforests, wildlife (wtvr.com)
- Profitable palm oil leaves environment poor (edition.cnn.com)
- Cargill needs to come clean … Ashley Schaeffer, Rainforest Action Network (point4counterpoint.wordpress.com)
The Wall Street Journal – Just when it seemed safe to take a deep breath in Southeast Asia, the smoky haze that envelops the region each year is wafting up from Indonesian forests again.
Increasingly, though, experts aren’t just blaming Indonesians, who in the past have been accused of recklessly burning forest land on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan to make way for palm oil plantations – a practice that produces the smoke that then drifts northward over Singapore and Malaysia. Indonesian authorities have typically said they are doing their best to police the problem, which is hard to do given the country’s vast size and limited enforcement resources.
The question is whether other actors are fanning the flames, says Anthony Tan, executive director of the Centre for Environment, Technology & Development, Malaysia (CETDEM).
“The haze comes from Sumatra and Kalimanthan. Which companies own the estates? Malaysian and Singaporean as well as local plantation owners,” he said. As a result, “Malaysian and Singaporean companies in Indonesia also have to bear the responsibility of open burning, of slashing and burning, that is happening within their estate territories.”
Moreover, he added, “it is the respective governments’ responsibility to take them to task. Just because they operate in a foreign country, they can’t wash their hands and say it does not affect us” when it actually does.
The issue is flaring up again because the smoke, which tends to appear at least once a year, is intensifying again.
According to Malaysia’s Department of Environment, satellite images show the number of “hotspots” producing smoke in Sumatra increased to 122 on June 13 from 67 the day before. The image also showed haze drifting from Riau in central Sumatra en route towards the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. Satellite images released by the Asean Specialized Meteorological Centre on June 18 June showed hotspots in Sumatra had risen further to 310 from 163 the previous day.
Malaysia’s DOE also said that on the morning of June 15th, air quality readings in three areas reached an unhealthy level of 131. Air quality readings improved by Monday, June 18.
In Malaysia, at least, authorities agree that it’s not entirely Indonesia’s fault, and they say they are doing what they can to help alleviate the situation, including reducing burning within Malaysia’s own borders. The DOE has imposed a temporary ban on open burning in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor except for religious purposes and barbecues with a fine up to RM500,000 or imprisonment of up to five years or both.
Still, “from the trend of hotspots monitored through satellite imagery, it has always and clearly shown that most of the hotspots originated from Indonesia and (then) the smoke plumes trespass the neighboring countries,” a DOE official said in a written response.
That doesn’t necessarily address the issue of Malaysian companies operating in Indonesia, though. According to Indonesia’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur, as much as 25% of the palm oil plantations in the archipelago nation are owned by Malaysian companies. This is largely because scarcity of land in Malaysia has forced big plantation companies there to expand abroad.
Many of Malaysia’s biggest palm oil companies, including Sime Darby Bhd., IOI Corp. Bhd. and Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd., are members of the Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is dedicated to making palm oil production more environmentally-friendly, and which has a zero burning policy. Its members must be certified by RSPO as responsible producers. Moreover, many analysts say they doubt many of the biggest companies would want to engage in burning because it could be too detrimental to their reputations.
But last year, the London based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and its Indonesian partner Telapak said they had documentary proof that KLK subsidiary PT Menteng Jaya Sawit Perdana was burning land. KLK denied the accusations. In a statement, plantation director Roy Lim said “KLK has long abandoned using fire to clear land for new planting or replanting. Our policy and practice is zero burning for such activities.”
Whatever the case, Indonesian officials say it’s hard to police an industry that covers so much terrain and they suspect some other producers might be burning land, or buying land from farmers who burn the trees themselves.
“Of course we don’t know who does it,” said Suryana Sastradiredja, an Information, Social and Cultural Affairs Minister-Counselor at the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur. But it’s hardly surprising some land owners would want to set fires, he says. After all, “burning is the traditional method – the cheapest way to open new land.”
- Haze Over Malaysia Points to a Regional Problem (nytimes.com)
- Fires in Indonesia Threaten the Citizens of Kuala Lumpur (news.softpedia.com)
- Smokey Haze from Indonesian Fires Engulf Southeast Asia (nytimes.com)
- Haze returns to Malaysia (newsinfo.inquirer.net)