The Other Oil Crisis

Palm oil is an ancient staple in West Africa and its origins are artisanal rather than industrial. For millennia, humans have boiled and pounded the oil palm fruit to extract cooking oil. Over the past few decades, global demand for palm oil has exploded, partly because of its incredible versatility, high productivity of the oil palm trees, and the high oil yield per land ratio (palm oil production only requires half as much land as soybeans to generate the same amount of oil). Among its many uses and advantages, it’s a healthier alternative to trans fats, cheap to produce, slow to smoke and has a long shelf life. Currently, palm oil is the world’s most popular vegetable oil, making up one-third of global consumption. In 2018, global consumption of palm oil was 72million tons, approximately 20 pounds per person, and this is no surprise, with its incredible versatility, it’s in nearly every food, beauty and hygiene products, and even biodiesel, and still, demand continues to rise.

However, supplying this demand has taken a huge toll on the environment, which is what everyone is talking about now, making palm oil use a rising controversy and a heated debate topic. Since 1973, more than 16,000 square mile of the Borneo rainforest has been logged, burned and bulldozed to make way for oil palm, accounting for one-fifth of Borneo’s total deforestation since 1973, but half since 2000. This deforestation has been absolutely devastating for the forest’s lush wildlife and rich biodiversity. Between 1999 and 2015, more than 150 000 critically endangered orangutans were killed from a combination of this deforestation/habitat loss and poaching. Mot to mention, all the diverse, complex and interconnected plant life was destroyed to make way for the oil palm monocultures. This was a major contributor to Indonesia’s GHG emissions and the acute air pollution the forest fires led to 12 000 premature deaths in 2015 alone.

People living in the path of the plantations have also suffered human rights abuses such as child labor and forced evictions to name a few. In Sumatra, palm oil companies bulldozed through entire indigenous villages, leaving these people homeless, dependent on government loans. This shortsighted ecological rampage and human rights violations are precisely what has caused so much tension from environmentalists and conservation groups with regards to palm oil production.

African and South East Asian countries that produce palm oil depend on the income, so palm oil is here to stay. Despite all the destruction caused by palm oil production, boycotting it is unwise because alternative oil crops would actually swallow more land. It is also futile, because palm oil is so pervasive and processed into other ingredients with complicated names, eclipsing their origins to consumers (ex. sodium lauryl sulfate and stearic acid). The only way forward from here is to ensure that further production is sustainable, and less harmful to the people and the environmentl.

In Gabon, they are working hard toward sustainable palm oil production, where they keep a balance of land use between agriculture, oil palm and protected forests. In the early 2000s, WWF and other international conservation groups teamed up with the biggest palm oil producers and buyers to create standards for more environmentally and socially responsible palm oil production. Now, any plantations certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) cannot clear primary forests or areas with significant concentrations of biodiversity or fragile ecosystems. They must also minimize erosion, protect nearby water sources, and pay their workers minimum wage in addition to achieving “free, prior and informed consent” from local communities.

Today, the RSPO certifies approximately one-fifth of the global palm oil supply. As a result of rising tensions over palm oil production, large manufacturers that rely on palm oil supply, such a Nestle, Unilever, and Proctor & Gamble have pledged to used only sustainably sourced/certified palm oil within the next few years. This is a big deal, but still, not enough yet. What is still lacking is government intervention in the process, because market-based solutions alone do not have the capacity to make a large impact on palm oil production without government intervention. The government needs to be on board and involved to ensure that a sufficient amount of its forests remain protected.

Intimate government involvement in oil palm production, also feeds money back into forest conservation. In Sabah, Malaysia, a group of scientists, activists, and RSPO members are trying to right past wrongs when it comes to the state’s palm oil industry. Using the profits from regulated palm oil exports, Sabah’s rainforest conservation authorities are slowly able to reforest degraded areas and protect even more areas for conservation. Additional profits also feed back into the communities, allowing them to improve other urban infrastructure like road paving, better schools and satellite television for its residents. Only petroleum contributes more revenue to Sabah’s government than the oil palm industry, without oil palm, conservation in Sabah would be in serious trouble. The state hopes to have all palm oil plantations RSPO certified by 2025.

Also in Sabah, Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil supplier, and RSPO member is replanting forests to protect watersheds and create wild life corridors. Of course, reforestation is labor intensive expensive and very slow, as several lifetimes of replanting won’t bring anything close to the old growth forests that were there before, but this is a very important start.


Source for information and statistics:

National Geographic December 2018 issue pp.81-101

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