Campaigns to Save the Rainforest

Rainforest Action Network  (RAN) preserves forests, protects the climate and upholds human rights by challenging corporate power and working with local communities and strategic campaigns.

Emma Lierley, Forests Communications Manager at RAN, told me recently that palm oil is still a relatively unknown issue. It is a forest commodity which means it comes from the tropical rainforest. Originally from Africa, it is now grown all over the tropics in what used to be rainforest, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Palm oil is widely used. It is in over half of packaged goods in the grocery store. Everything from cookies and crackers to toothpaste and shampoo. It is disguised through about 15 different names on the labels. It is advertised as being a healthy alternative to transfats and hydrogenated oils.

It is also used for biofuels as a sustainable green fuel source.

But what we know is it is a leading cause of tropical rainforest deforestation and has decimated Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s rainforests.

The carbon emissions of the deforestation and the clear cutting, followed by the planting and growing of the palm oil trees, actually produces more carbon emissions than does fossil fuels, Emma told me.

Because the industry is unregulated, the labor practices on plantations are awful, she added. Child labor is common, and even human trafficking and forced labor. People are beginning to point to the palm oil industry as an example of modern day slavery.

RAN works through pressuring the buyers of palm oil, the massive food companies that are buying up millions of gallons of palm oil every year. They pressure the companies to change their buying practices.

It is important to educate each individual consumer who can use their buying power in a way that feels appropriate.

But the market players with the most money and buying power to leverage are the massive snack food companies like PepsiCo, Nestle, and homecare companies like Unilever.

We pressure them through organized consumer action to change the marketplace and to ensure that the palm oil they buy is from a responsible source and not at the expense of the world’s rainforests or from child or forced labor.

Companies like Pepsico are starting to understand that sustainability sells so they need to establish sustainability commitments and “green wash” their operations. But so far this hasn’t translated into change on the ground.

RAN’s goal posts are forests standing, and that harm done to communities is remedied, and do the local people have control of their land. We are still fighting for that, Emma said.

There’s also forest based clothing. It’s a little known fact but materials like rayon is found in a lot of clothing as pure rayon or a rayon blend. It provides a nice drape to clothes and is comfortable.

But it is cellulosic fibers and comes from trees. They are made from the ground up pulp of acacia or eucalyptus trees.

So far how companies have operated is they will come into a community, take control of or seize the land, clear cut the native rainforest, and put in these massive farms of acacia or eucalyptus trees. So what was once one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on our planet becomes this deadened monoculture of acacia or eucalyptus trees.

Once the trees are mature, the company will clear cut them, removing the sensitive soil. Then they grind up the trees and turn it into a pulp which is sort of a chemical slurry of fibers. And from there they extract the fibers and weave it into rayon.

One reason RAN focuses on companies and not individuals is because individuals (and even RAN) can never know the buying chain or find out what is sustainable and what is not. In terms of percentages, it is likely that most rayon is not sustainable.

Orangutan in rainforestRAN and some other organizations are working on this issue. RAN has a campaign called Out Of Fashion that they have been running for the last several years. It pressures fashion companies to go through and be transparent in their supply chains each step of the way as to where they are  sourcing their fabric from. That is, be transparent right back to the forest floor so they can map out their supply chain and know that each step of the way the people and planet are not being harmed in any way.

RAN is seeing some movement. Too many fashion companies don’t know where their supply is coming from. But some brands are committing to doing that. And RAN is using consumer pressure to get brands who care about their image to change.

A frequent question that Emma gets is “What can I do?”

Her response is “Get active”. RAN ultimately needs consumers to pressure companies to do what we need them to do. Hearing from concerned consumers is the primary way RAN and others can threaten the companies’ bottom line and get them to ultimately do something different.

Otherwise the companies will do business as usual and sell us products that make billions for them while destroying rainforest and driving animals like the orangutan into extinction.

What is ultimately going to make a positive difference is for the companies to hear the voices of the people and make changes.

This means letter writing, emails, phone calls,  following RAN;s website, and signing petitions. Petitions do make a difference. Regularly RAN turns in petitions with tens of thousands of signatures to the target companies and it makes a difference that people are watching them and expecting them to do better. It really does have an impact, Emma said. So the next time you get an email with a petition, please respond.

RAN has some resources for teachers, students and parents on their website.


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Alison Wheatley

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