Palm Oil and Rainforest Destruction
In Guatemala just over a year ago, I flew in a small plane so low over the rainforest that we could see some large birds circle and land in a tree. For the first time in my life, I witnessed what I’ve read about tropical rainforests for years – the grassy sections where the forest has been chopped down, the dirt areas where now nothing will grow, and the little clumps of forest that are too small for anything larger than a coatimundi to live in. “What was there before?” I wondered. “What animals have we lost? What medicinal plants?”
“What you saw in Guatemala is not very different from what you see flying over the Amazon, [or] over parts of Southeast Asia or Africa,” Leila Salazar-Lopez of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) told me today. “Anywhere where there’s rainforest, they are literally on the chopping block.”
Agribusiness is responsible for much of the destruction. RAN’s Rainforest Agribusiness campaign is focused on trying to protect tropical rainforest from the alarmingly fast expansion into rainforests. One of the commodities responsible for this is palm oil.
Palm oil is in about 50% of our consumer goods, including snack foods, cereals, detergents, cosmetics and even biofuels. Most people don’t know that, Leila told me. The reason palm oil is such a globally-expanding commodity is that it’s cheap – it’s the least expensive source of vegetable oil in the world.
Unfortunately, palm oil is a tropical plant, originally from Africa, and can only be grown in the tropics. About 90% of it is from Indonesia and Malaysia. “The highest rate of deforestation in the world is in Indonesia. They got a Guinness Book of World Records acknowledgement – they’re destroying 20 square miles of rainforest every day – that’s about three football fields,” Leila explained. Indonesia has destroyed around half of its rainforest already, over the last few decades. Due to increased demand for palm oil, the Indonesian government has already announced plans to convert another 18 million hectares into palm oil plantations by 2020. That’s “approximately the size of Missouri,” as Leila put into perspective.
So much rainforest land has been cleared, burned or drained; people have been evicted from their homes; and it’s negatively affecting our climate. Animals are being displaced from their habitats and don’t have anywhere to live, including some incredible species such as the orangutan, Sumatran tiger, Sumatran elephant and the sunbear. “These animals are very, very threatened from palm oil plantation expansion,” Leila added. As well, up to 20 million Indonesians depend on forests for survival. If “forests are cut down, [the people] can’t harvest food, they can’t hunt, they can’t live in the way they’ve been living for thousands of years.”
RAN is campaigning to stop the destruction of any more rainforest for this commodity. They suggest that companies that are using palm oil should research their supply chain and find out where the palm oil is coming from. They need to let their suppliers know that they “only want socially and environmentally responsible palm oil, [and] don’t want palm oil that comes from destroyed rainforests that displaces communities and destroys the climate. We don’t want that kind of palm oil,” Leila advised.
There’s a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that has principles and standards that companies should follow, at a minimum. Companies should act responsibly and source palm oil only from suppliers who protect high conservation value forests and get the free consent of forest communities.
RAN is speaking with global companies such as Cargill, trying to get their message understood and adopted. More information is available on RAN’s website.
Leila also suggested that you download Green: The Film – a documentary that shows through images and music what rainforest destruction due to palm oil looks like from the viewpoint of an orangutan. It’s a realistic portrayal of how the animals are being impacted on a daily basis.