We have all seen the TV news coverage of thick smoke covering much of Southeast Asia. Indonesian forest fires, we are told, are making the air unbreathable, even many hundreds of miles away. Forest fires? Why are the forests burning, you might well ask. It turns out, those fires, although officially illegal, are part of the development strategy of Indonesia. Perversely, this development takes place under the ‘green’ cloak of CO2 emission reduction and sustainability. Burning is the quickest and most efficient way to clear the land after it has been logged (read: cutting mostly primary rainforest) and to prepare it for planting oil palm plantations, Indonesia’s biggest, booming industry.
Humans have used palm oil for some 5000 years. The fruit of this species of palm tree (Elaeis guineensis) is particularly rich in oil, in both the mesocarp (fruit flesh) and the kernel. For thousands of years people have used this oil for cooking and cosmetics, without much harm being done. However, in recent years the story has changed. The oil palm’s swift rise to become one of the most lucrative agro-crops on the planet has spelled disaster - and the misery still continues.
What has fuelled this success story is our insatiable thirst for energy. In the past, most of our energy has been derived from fossil fuel sources, such as crude oil and coal, which have turned out to be extremely bad choices as far as the environment is concerned. In response to growing pressure to curb CO2 emissions, the EU and US has encouraged the use of ‘bio-fuel’ as a renewable, and thus sustainable source of energy. Palm oil is one of the major crops used to produce bio-diesel, which is supposed to reduce our carbon footprint. However, it has become more than evident that this strategy is completely misguided and has been doing a great deal more harm than good.
Palm oil plantations, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s largest exporters of palm oil, are often established on land that was previously rainforest, even primary rainforest. In the process of this conversion huge amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. (The emissions are worst where the land that is cleared is bog land and peat marshes - which is often the case). The loss of habitats for many endangered species such as orang utans and many others, is staggering as millions of hectares are continuously converted. Indonesia’s official line of defense is 'rainforests are worthless. It is undeveloped land that doesn’t do anything for us. We need to develop it so we can improve the livelihoods of the rural poor.'
But this is not the whole truth. For a start, many tribal people lay claim to ancestral rights of rainforest regions. The forest is their home, their ‘mother’. It gives them everything they need to live on. Money economy is virtually unknown among these tribals. But they, along with the orang utans and countless other species, have been made homeless, and worse, are sometimes forced to work on the very land of their ancestors from which they have been evicted, for pittance, of course. This is akin to asking someone to rape their mother. Elsewhere corrupt politicians ‘sell off’ community lands to corporations, leaving the communities landless and unable to support themselves by growing their own foods.
Oil palms are often doused in a heavy cocktail of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, which filter through to the ground water and pollute the drinking water of local communities.
While initially the government saw palm oil production as a means of alleviating poverty, in reality only few farmers could afford the establishment of such plantations or the means of bringing the harvested crops to the nearest processing plant. The fruits need to be processed within 24 hours or else they start to break down and the oil becomes less valuable. As a result the gap between rich and poor grew wider. But things took a sharp turn for the worse when palm oil started to become a popular source of bio-fuel. Suddenly international investors and developers started to move in, without consultation or prior consent of local people. Illegal logging became a lucrative side line. However, in Indonesia, much of the land is covered with peat soil, which is particularly rich in carbon. When it is cleared the carbon is released into the atmosphere, increasing co2 emissions. Exposed to the sun, the soil soon dries out and deteriorates. Once the forest is cleared the ‘scraps’ are burnt, releasing yet more carbon into the atmosphere. it is thus not surprising that Indonesia is the world’s 3rd biggest CO2 producer after the US and China. So much for our 'green, renewable energy'.
The demand for bio fuel has also increased the availability of palm oil for other industrial uses. And nowadays it is so ubiquitous, that it is a challenge to avoid it. You will find palm oil in everything from margarine to chocolates, biscuits, cereals, ice cream, mayonnaise and muesli-bars. It also hides in shampoos, detergent, soap and washing liquids, as well as every cosmetic product you can imagine. It really is everywhere.
Because it is not a nut oil, and because of its relatively stable chemical composition made up mostly of saturated fatty acids, it is a favourite with the food industry. Palm oil has largely replaced ‘trans fats’, which have previously come under attack for being very unhealthy and the cause of many diet related health issues such as heart disease, obesity, and neurological problems such as Alzheimer’s, as well as cancer and diabetes.
All this quietly ran its course for quite some time. But in recent years concern over deforestation has mounted and the plight of orang utans reached the ears of westerners (more so than the plight of the displaced indigenous people, who share the same habitat) and NGOs have launched major campaigns to draw attention to the negative impacts of the palm oil industry. Their campaigning met with success, so it seemed. In 2004 a ‘round table’ of stake holders and interest groups, as well as NGOs was set up to work out ethical guidelines for the ‘sustainable’ production of palm oil. The guidelines stipulate that plantations should not be set up on recently cleared lands nor on peat land of a certain depth, that local people must be fully informed and give their consent to any plantations coming to their neighborhoods, that land rights and human rights of indigenous people must be respected and child labour or forced labour are to be banned.
A step in the right direction. But, as anyone who has worked on this kind of negotiation knows, it is one thing to write lofty ethics down on a piece of paper, but an entirely different matter to actually enforce such policies.
Corruption is a major factor in undermining good policies. Those who fund these kinds of projects, the banker and investors, never go into the field to see for themselves what is really going on. While the industry’s biggest buyers will tell you that they only purchase palm oil from sustainable sources, they simply rely on what their suppliers are telling them. And even though at that point of the supply chain, the people at the top may be very well aware of the environmental impacts of unsustainable palm oil production and actually belief that since it is their company’s policy to produce palm oil sustainably, unfortunately, the people in the field doing the actual dirty work very likely have never heard of these stipulations and don’t adhere to those lofty policies. We are stuck with a dilemma - while more and more companies are pledging to adopt more stringent environmental and social standards, land grabbing, displacement of tribal people, slave labour, health problems due to water and air pollution, deforestation and habitat loss continue unconstrained. It should be clear to anyone that Palm oil can hardly be called a 'green' product.
The fact that companies are starting to pay attention to their 'green’ image' is a good sign, but as long as it is only 'image' they are concerned with rather than actual practice, nothing has actually changed and the fact that the directives are being undermined even by members of the RSPO (round table), renders certification meaningless.
Indonesia is the smoking gun, but unfortunately the blight of landgrabbing and establishment of palm oil plantations continues to spread throughout the developing world in Africa and Central and South America, where corrupt administrators have little incentive to stand in the way of anybody who is willing to line their pockets.
But palm oil is not a problem of the developing world alone. Western nations are the main consumers of palm oil - including as biofuel. It is up to us to urge companies not to use palm oil in their products and to urge policy makers to revise the status of palm oil as a source of 'sustainable' bio fuel. Palm oil is not sustainable. Palm oil production is yet another form of energy imperialism - we export the impacts of production while kidding ourselves that we are buying a clean conscience. It is time to wake up and face the real and extremely devastating consequences of our consumption habits.
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