Palm Oil – 9 FAQs
The rainforest must be cleared to prepare for planting. The first step is necessary because palm trees won’t grow well under closed canopies (treetops) of undisturbed rain forest. Palm plantations can range anywhere from 2 to 40,000 hectares in size. To bring those numbers into perspective, 1 hectare is equivalent to 2.4 American football fields. So anywhere from 5 to 96,000 football fields of rainforest are cleared to make way for a single palm plantation. Often the land is initially stripped of valuable timber to generate quick cash and then sits dormant, possibly for decades, or is completely abandoned due to lack of funds or conflict with local communities. This will lead to soil erosion which means top soil and nutrients are washed away by the heavy rains of the region. This makes the chances of forest regeneration unlikely.
What can be done?
Enforcement of the current Indonesian Presidential Instruction that bans the clearance of primary forest and clearance of peatland.
The world’s desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has led to the popularization of vegetable oils in consumable goods and fuel. In particular the oil palm crop is especially efficient as we are able to get more oil from a single palm plant than any other vegetable crop available. That means land use efficiency, which is important in a world with an ever increasing population and shrinking resources, is maximized. What we neglected to consider are the methods used to produce palm and palm kernel oils. Oil palm producers target primary forest for cultivation so they can raise capital from selling the harvested timber. Once the viable trees are removed, the remaining brush is burned. This practice is known as “slash and burn”. Burning primary forest has been calculated to release 610 metric tons of CO2/hectare resulting in a carbon debt of 86 years. If the forest contains peatland, the resulting emissions and carbon debt are much higher. Peatland has a high carbon load and is highly flammable and can burn for months. Burning peatland is calculated to release 6000 metric tons of CO2/hectare with a carbon debt of 840 years (Fargione et al. 2008). What makes matters worse is peatland is the most efficient carbon sink in the world. If reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is our goal, we shouldn’t allow the destruction of our most efficient carbon sink. Even so, as of 2007, 1.7 x 106 hectares of oil palm plantations were planted on peatland (Page et al, 2007, Kompas 2010a). The peatland that exists in Indonesia and Malaysia are some of the oldest and deepest in the world which means they contain the most carbon.
The removal of forest means removal of habitat for many forest inhabitants, some of which are unique to Malaysia and Indonesia. This leads to starvation or increased conflict with humans as these animals search for food. It also results in isolated populations of species which leads to inbreeding and further weakening an already stressed population. This diverse ecosystem is replaced with monocrops that cannot support all the species found in the rainforest.
What can be done?
Limit plantation permits to degraded land. Degraded land, as defined by WRI, is land with “low carbon stock” or less than 35 tonnes of carbon per hectare. Educate the population through school programs and require plantation owners and personnel to attend classes held by NGOs and universities regarding the unique value of the animals of the region and what to do when encountered with clear guidance against killing endangered species or selling or capturing any animals.
Over 50% of the world’s species reside in the rainforest. It’s like a museum of life here on planet earth. Many of those species are native to the rainforest in which they live and can’t be found anywhere else. As recently as 2006, 52 new species of plants and animals where found on the island of Borneo (WWF 2006). There are most certainly plants and animals that have yet to be discovered. Tropical rainforests also contain peatland which holds large stores of carbon. Indonesia and Malaysia combined contain approximately 56% of all tropical peatland by area (Page et al, 2011a). Topical Peatland is the most efficient carbon sink on our planet. There are laws prohibiting the burning of peatland and forest, yet the practice continues as documented by satellite and eyewitness accounts. Peat can burn slowly, for long periods of time and release huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Combined carbon emissions due to fires in Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, between the years of 2000 and 2006, averaged comparable amounts to the total volume of fossil fuel emissions in the region (van der Werf, et al. 2008). In a world where we hope to limit greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sinks should be protected.
What can be done?
An education campaign with youth of the region and plantation workers to ensure the value of this unique ecosystem is known and protected.
The RSPO was initiated by Unilever, AAK, Migros, MPOA (Malaysian Palm Oil Ass.) and WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) in an effort to repair the image of the oil palm industry amid the environmental scandals committed over the previous 20 years. The goal was to alleviate buyers’ concerns regarding deforestation resulting from the oil palm industry by promoting the idea of “sustainable” palm oil. The system relies upon 3rd party auditors to examine palm plantations and ensure adherence to the RSPO Standard. Successfully following this process allows palm producers to sell their product as “RSPO certified”. Material bearing the RSPO seal secures a higher price out on the open market. Using RSPO certified material also gives the end users and their customers a false sense of security in thinking the material is sustainably sourced.
The RSPO Standard does not allow the use of trafficked labor. Even so it has been found that trafficked labor is supplied by contractors to RSPO certified plantations (EIA, 2015). Trafficked laborers’ passports are typically taken, they are paid less than the legal minimum wage and often work 7 days a week. All these practices are illegal but are openly done under the cover of trafficking. Children of trafficked workers are not recognized by the countries in which they live. They are not able to attend school or use public healthcare. If a child is born to a trafficked laborer, that child is country-less and has even fewer options than their very poor parents. Allowing the proliferation of a population of desperate people leads to the success of extremist groups like ISIS which is already present in Mindanao Philippines.
The RSPO enacted the New Planting Procedure (NPP) in 2010. The NPP states land concessions must be appraised for high conservation value (HCV) and Social and Environmental Impact Assessments (SEIA) must be done prior to clearing and planting. The NPP should halt, for example, the practice of planting on peatland or primary forest or using land claimed by indigenous people without first getting permission. HCVs are biotic, environmental, communal or cultural values that are considered exceptionally important. They may provide essentials for local people, critical environmental needs or support threatened ecosystems. The RSPO lists six HCVs covering these criteria. The RSPO Standard states no new developments, beyond November 2005, may replace primary forests or any area required to maintain or enhance one or more of the HCVs. Even so, the EIA found instances where land was cleared before the assessments were even complete. Oil palm board members also hold positions on the complaints panel within the RSPO. If Oil Palm companies were efficient at policing themselves in the first place, we wouldn’t need the RSPO.
Big companies committed to zero deforestation are doing so in name-only, if they are using palm oil. When companies like L’Oreal or Unliever say they are using sustainably sourced, RSPO certified palm oil, what does that mean? It means it’s up to you, the consumer, to demand certified palm free products.
Orangutans are unique to the Malaysian and Indonesian rainforests. They don’t exist anywhere else in the world and share 97% of our DNA. They live in the tree tops and travel from tree to tree, eating large quantities fruit and dropping seeds in their feces throughout the rainforest. This service that orangutans provide supports the health of the rainforest which many other species rely on for survival. When oil palm companies remove primary forest, the solitary orangutan loses its home and food source. They are often killed in human conflict as they search for food or die of starvation. The orangutan is currently on the critically endangered list and most likely has survived this long due to the efforts of non-governmental organizations that fight to rescue and rehabilitate these animals. If orangutans become extinct, the east Asian rain forests will most likely become vulnerable to environmental extremes.
What can be done?
Look for products with the seal and talk about what is happening to the rain forest and the orangutans.
Ironically, the natural trend is driving the successs of the palm oil market and consequently, deforestation of our rainforests. This movement encourages the use of natural materials over those derived from petroleum.
The desire to reduce greenhouse gases and effect the rate of global warming is what has increased the popularity of natural brands in personal care and cosmetics. Purchasing products made with naturally sourced materials is perceived as responsible and better for the environment. The fact that more oil can be obtained from a single palm plant as opposed to other oil crops like soybean, olive, rapeseed, etc. allows for proliferation of the idea that palm oil is more efficient and again better for the environment. Price and availability further encourage the use of palm oil over other vegetable oils. In food, the inexpensive oil is attractive to developing economies and in the US, the current trend is to move away from trans fats.
What about supply?
Palm oil accounts for 5-6% of GDP for Malaysia and 7% for Indonesia. These governments encourage palm production through loan programs, minimal environmental oversight and development of new markets like biodiesel. The more popular palm oil becomes the more difficult it is to secure competing oils.
What can be done?
Look for our seal on your personal care, cosmetics and food products. Consciously purchasing to avoid deforestation even on a portion of what you buy every day, will make an impact.
The Federal Land Development Agency (FELDA) is one of the world’s largest oil palm companies. It was founded in 1956 by the Malaysian Government to help relieve poverty among the landless. Even so, 85% of FELDA’s work force is composed of migrant workers (EIA, 2015). How does supplying most of FELDA’s work force with people from outside Malaysia, many of whom are trafficked, relieve poverty among the landless? Trafficked labor is supplied to plantations through contractors. This is how companies evade responsibility. Local populations are more expensive than those who are trafficked. Confiscation of passports, lack of compensation for on the job injuries, 10 to 12-hour work days, working 7 days per week and being paid less than minimum wage, if at all, are all illegal practices yet go unchecked among the trafficked population.
The children of these workers aren’t recognized by the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia. They are essentially country-less nomads with no protected rights to education or basic welfare. If the palm plantation doesn’t provide schools or healthcare, the only option available to these children is to join their parent(s) and work on the plantation. The US Department of Labor lists palm oil from Indonesia as being produced with child labor and palm oil coming from Malaysia as being produced by child and forced labor. This is a growing population of poor youth with few, if any, options in a region where extremist groups exist.
Local communities, like the Dayak or Muara Tae, utilize the rain forest for food, medicine and shelter. They typically make their living as farmers. Even though these groups are recognized to have rights to the land on which they live and farm, the local governments don’t intervene in land disputes between local communities and palm plantations. The RSPO Standard commits to protecting land rights yet complaints typically go unresolved. The local people have no money or power to effectively defend their rights so their voices go unheard. The local communities of these regions are not benefiting from the oil palm trade. A typical outcome is loss of land rights for current and future generations, soil erosion, silt and fertilizer run off into waterways and loss of forest resources.
The whole idea that natural is better came from the fact that burning fossil fuel emits greenhouse gases which many believe leads to global warming. Burning natural biodiesel is a much cleaner energy source. According to the EPA, burning 100% biodiesel reduces Sulfates (which cause acid rain) by 100%. Carbon Monoxide (which leads to greenhouse gases) is reduced by 50%. Particulate matter (which contributes to soot and inflames and causes lung disease) is reduced by 50%. So yes, if we are just talking about the act of burning fuel, biodiesel is better than petroleum. What we failed to take into account is how that biodiesel is produced. Oil palm plantations are typically grown on land that previously contained rainforest undisturbed by humans, also known as “primary rainforest”. The first step in land conversion is to cut down primary forest and burn what remains. One major issue with this practice is that rainforest is home to 50% of the world’s species. If their habitat is unprotected, endemic species populations become threatened with extinction. Another major issue is Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests are home to some of the oldest and deepest peatlands in the world (Page et al., 2011, Dommain et al., 2011, Wüst et al., 2011). That means these peatlands contains the most carbon. Peatland is highly flammable so when it is set on fire, it can smolder for months creating lots of soot and as much carbon dioxide as what is seen with fossil fuel combustion (Fargione et al. 2008). The labor intensive practice of clearing land, planting and harvesting palm fruit also requires an army of cheap labor. As much as 20% of Malaysia’s workforce consists of migrant workers. Many of those migrant workers are trafficked even if they travel willingly to Malaysia. Migrant workers in Malaysia are often subject to passport restriction, debt bondage and contract substitution (ie-the job in Malaysia is different from the employment contract that was signed in the worker’s home country). All these practices are indications of forced labor according to the US Department of State. The US Department of Labor also lists palm oil form Indonesia and Malaysia as also being produced by child labor. Does a natural oil that leads to some of the highest deforestation rates in the world, the creation of multiple critically endangered species, greenhouse gas emissions that rival those of fossil fuel combustion and uses forced and child labor sound like it is better for our world?
What can be done?
Follow, Like and Share us with your friends. Stores and brands pay attention to social media traffic. Look for and buy Palm Free Certified products and donate so we can keep the movement going and continue to get the word out among the American consumer.