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An estimated 50% of supermarket products – including make-up and hygiene products and household foods – contain palm oil. Environmentally-conscious consumers are frustrated by its seemingly inescapable presence. Where does it originate, why is palm oil deforestation an issue and what actions are being taken by governments, businesses and customers to reduce its detrimental impact?

Palm oil is famous for being a major driver of large-scale deforestation of some of the world’s largest forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the Orangutan, pygmy elephant, and Sumatran rhino.

The palms from which this edible vegetable oil is obtained are native to Africa but were brought to South-East Asia just over a century ago as an ornamental tree crop. Here, they found an ideal habitat to take root in. Amongst the 42 producing countries, Indonesia and Malaysia currently make up over 85% of the global supply of palm oil.  

A Ubiquitous and Hidden Ingredient

This incredibly versatile oil has different properties and functions that make it an extremely popular product worldwide.

It is semi-solid at room temperature, which makes it easier to use it. It is also table at high temperatures, making it a great frying oil. Moreover, palm oil is resistant to oxidation and is thus added to several processed foods to ensure a longer shelf-life; it is also odourless and colourless, which means that it does not alter the look or smell of food products. In Asian and African countries, palm oil is used widely as cooking oil, just like sunflower or olive oil are widely used across European countries.

Nowadays, palm oil is in nearly everything. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), nearly 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets – from pizza, doughnuts and chocolate, to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick – contain this type of oil. In many parts of the world it is also used in animal feed and as a biofuel.

Given that palm oil is in about half of supermarket products, individuals may wonder why they do not see it listed as an ingredient on their shampoo or other everyday items. Palm oil has indeed become a “dirty word” that manufacturers avoid on their packaging; and it is often not a labelling requirement. Derivatives can appear under many names, disguising their presence in everyday off-the shelf products.

Take decyl glucoside, sodium lauryl sulfate and cetearyl alcohol, for example. Nothing in the chemical terminology gives away the fact that these widely-used compounds are all byproducts of palm oil. There are around 170 different names used to disguise palm oil on packaging.

You might also like: Certified Sustainable Palm Oil and Alternatives for the Future















A list of some of the many alternate names for palm oil. Source: Orangutan Foundation International

In a January 2019 report, The World Health Organisation warned that alternative names for palm oil and unclear labelling means that “consumers may be unaware of what they are eating or its safety”.

The palm oil industry is often compared to “Big Tobacco”, suggesting that it is deploying similar tactics to influence research into the health effects of its products.

“These tactics – like establishing lobbying structures in political and economic hubs, fighting regulations, attempting to undermine reliable sources of information and using poverty alleviation arguments – are similar to those pursued by the tobacco and alcohol industries” the report reads.  “However, the palm oil industry receives comparatively little scrutiny”.

The Malaysian Government has since asked the WHO to pull the report, which it described as biased. “We view the article as half-truths, un-scholarly, flawed and utterly biased against palm oil, with suspected intention of demonising the palm oil industry,” stated the Ministry of Primary Industries.

Palm fruits are the source of the world’s most popular edible oil. Photo by Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

The Issue of Palm Oil Deforestation

While the health benefits of pail oil have been disputed, one thing is certainly clear: palm oil plantations are a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, severely degrading the environment and affecting the carbon sinks of the world that leads to catastrophic impact on forests, endangered animals and climate change

Palm tree plantations have a life-cycle of 28-30 years. After this time, the trees reach a height of over 12 metres, making them uneconomical to harvest the fruits from which the oil is derived from. They are then cut and replaced by new trees.

Palm oil deforestation is a huge issue. It is estimated that up to 300 football fields forest globally are cleared every hour to make room for palm plantations, destroying the habitat of already critically endangered species like the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and rhino.

Forest loss, because of all the carbon contained in living organisms, coupled with conversion of carbon-rich peatlands, emits millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, further contributing to climate change.

NASA researchers say that accelerated slash and burn forest clearing in Borneo contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, which transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of carbon emissions.

A network of access roads on former orangutan habitat inside the PT Karya Makmur Abadi Estate II palm oil concession in East Kotawaringin district, Central Kalimantan; Borneo, Indonesia. Source: Greenpeace

You might also like: 10 Deforestation Facts You Should Know About

Ironically, palm oil was supposed to help save environment degradation. A decade ago, Western nations mandated the use of vegetable oil in biofuels, in an ambitious move to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and curb global warming.

Domestic pressure from rural constituencies played a role. America’s agricultural industry had been heavily lobbying to enter the energy sector to create a marketplace alternative to its natural food supply chain.

Then-President George W. Bush posited that biofuels, particularly corn-derived ethanol and biodiesel made from vegetable oil, would power our future mobility, increasing the country’s energy independence from foreign oil.

The Energy Policy Act passed in 2005 contained the first provisions for the Renewable Fuel Standards, requiring transportation fuel sold in the United States to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuel. But the legislation encouraging biofuels was drawn up based on an incomplete accounting of the true environmental costs, ignoring scientific warnings that the policies could have the opposite of their intended effect.

Biodiesel production in the US subsequently jumped from 250 million gallons to 1.5 billion gallons between 2006 and 2016. While domestic soy-bean production was diverted to meet the lucrative biofuel demand, the food industry replaced the increasingly expensive soy-based ingredients with a cheaper substitute: palm oil.

Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil flooded western markets, with a crippling effect on the tropical rainforests.

Emboldened by the unprecedented palm oil boom, large corporations cornered the market and started acquiring more land to expand production. It led to today’s ongoing industrial-scale deforestation – and a huge spike in carbon emissions.

Indonesia continues its environmental rollback, even though the country is seen as crucially important to the success of the Paris accord to cut global carbon emissions.

In December 2018, the government announced plans to build more than 100 coal-fired power plants, and expand the production of palm oil for local biofuel consumption.

“They are doing some good things, but it is not enough, said Teguh Surya, who works at a local environmental NGO, referring to Indonesia’s efforts to restore carbon-rich peatlands and a suspension on partial forest clearing. “Palm oil expansion is still in planning, on the ground we found some peat areas still open for plantation and there is still weaknesses in law enforcement.”

Power to the Consumer

Fortunately for eco-conscious consumers, a quick internet research and brand selectiveness can go a long way to steer clear of products that may contribute to unsustainable practices.

The Rainforest Foundation UK Palm Oil Guide provides a comprehensive list of sustainable companies and specific supermarket products for customers to shop more responsibly.

A handy consumer app, Buycott allows buyers across the world to scan the barcode of a product to find out its exact content and how sustainable it is.

Consumers can also look out for Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified products, as well as those containing organic palm oil.

In large numbers, more environmentally aware consumers can essentially force companies to clean up their act by boycotting corporations outed for unsustainable production– as in the cases of Nestle, Ferrero and Unilever.

To encourage change in the industry and mitigate the substance’s impact on the environment, “the solution is for big brands to only buy palm oil from responsible growers that protect rainforests”, says Diana Ruiz, senior palm oil campaigner for Greenpeace. “And it is available”.

You might also like: 12 Major Companies Responsible for Deforestation

The world’s orangutans are facing dire straits. As the palm oil and illegal logging industries continue to boom, critical orangutan habitats in Indonesia and Malaysia are rapidly disappearing. The plight of the orangutans may be grave, but there is still time to secure a brighter future for these great apes. 

Orangutan Facts: Gardeners of the Forest 

Orangutans are highly intelligent mammals that share nearly 97% of their DNA with humans. Originally considered one species, there are now three recognised species of orangutans– the Sumatran orangutan, the Bornean orangutan, and the Tapanuli orangutan, all considered critically endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The world’s remaining wild orangutans- estimated to be less than 120 000– exist exclusively in the dwindling tropical rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo. 

Orangutans experience long childhoods, with young orangutans typically spending between seven and eleven years with their mothers. Adult female orangutans also experience lengthy intervals between births. These relatively low reproductive rates result in slow species propagation, which exacerbates existing threats to the future existence of orangutans. 

As a result of their fruit-heavy diets, orangutans perform the crucial ecosystem service of seed dispersal. Often referred to as the ‘gardeners of the forest’, orangutans directly contribute to the health and continuity of their tropical forest environments. Healthy forests, in turn, provide a host of critical ecological services, including the prevention of water runoff, soil erosion mitigation, and global carbon sequestration and storage.

Orangutans are highly perceptive, inquisitive, and creative animals. However, due to a range of imminent threats, the future existence of these great apes is anything but certain. 

Why are orangutans endangered?

Perhaps the greatest threat to orangutan survival is the extremely lucrative palm oil industry. Palm oil, which is used to produce a wide array of food and personal care products, is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world. Palm oil is extracted from oil palm trees, which are mass-cultivated on huge monoculture plantations. 90% of these oil palm plantations are located in Indonesia and Malaysia, the region upon which wild orangutans are completely dependent for their survival. 

Palm oil cultivation requires the widespread clearing of rainforest habitats, often via human-induced forest fires, in order to make space for palm oil plantations. This large-scale deforestation has devastating effects on wildlife species, particularly vulnerable orangutan populations. Subsequent habitat loss and fragmentation force orangutans to migrate to less ideal territories, where many starve and experience decreased reproductive rates. 

Illegal logging is another major threat to vulnerable orangutan populations. It was estimated that illegal logging had taken place in 90% of Indonesia’s national parks in 2007, which are considered the ‘last strongholds of orangutans’. The lucrative illegal industry is driven primarily by international markets and timber supply networks, with Asian, European and North American countries being major recipients of illegally-logged timber. 

Illegal logging contributes heavily to the mass destruction and fragmentation of orangutan habitats. Unfortunately, park rangers in Indonesia’s national parks possess insufficient numbers, training, and equipment to effectively ward off illegal logging activity.

Other threats to the future survival of orangutans include road development, mining, illegal hunting, and illegal animal trade.

Land-Use Conflicts 

The road to securing a brighter future for orangutans is laden with little-acknowledged economic and moral complications. Orangutan habitat preservation presents land-use conflicts with local stakeholders who are able to generate direct income through habitat elimination and palm oil production. These local communities consequently suffer as a result of orangutan preservation and are not sufficiently compensated by people who support conservation efforts.

The idea of orangutan preservation, on the other hand, is enjoyed by the global masses, including the wealthy, who bear little to none of the cost that local communities suffer. It is essential that future orangutan conservation initiatives exist with the interests of both orangutans and local stakeholders in mind.

What Can Be Done? 

Fortunately, despite their dire straits, there is hope for the orangutans. Many organisations, including the World Wildlife Fund, the Orangutan Foundation, the Orangutan Conservancy, and Orangutan Outreach, are working diligently to support orangutan preservation through a range of conservation activities.    

However, there is always more that can be done. Consumers can support orangutans by only purchasing wood and paper products with the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) label, by only purchasing palm oil products made with Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, or by avoiding palm oil products altogether. 

Additionally, members of the public can make a positive impact by spreading the word about the plight of the orangutans, by taking small steps to reduce their carbon footprints, and by encouraging friends, family members and colleagues to take similar action. 

The greatest conservation success story in the 21st century is the exponential growth of protected areas–a primary defence mechanism against Earth’s biodiversity loss. In 1992, world nations signed an agreement to create protected areas on land and sea to preserve nature and prevent biodiversity loss.  The numbers say we did it. 15% of the Earth’s surface is now marked as protected. But did we really do it? Do numbers alone speak the truth?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) definition of a protected area is ‘a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values’.

What are Protected Areas and Why are They Important?

These protected areas play a key role in preserving the benefits that nature brings to people. These benefits, often referred to as ‘ecosystem services,’ include the provision of food and freshwater, the regulation of floods and droughts, nutrient cycling, and recreational opportunities.

The idea of protecting nature was originally conceived in the late 19th century to preserve vast stretches of wilderness in their unspoiled, untouched form. The goal was simple: to keep nature safe from people. While this remains true today, new objectives were added over time, as protected wildlife zones often became tourist attractions and important economic pillars starting from the 1970s- a period which saw the expansion of protected areas across the world.

Since signing the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993, the 168 member states have almost doubled the size of their protected areas in efforts to meet that treaty’s goal: that each nation protects at least 17% of its land area and 10% of its oceans by 2020. As of today, world nations have legally designated over 202 000 protected lands covering 19.8 million square kilometers, or 15% of Earth’s surface.

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protected lands
The protected areas of the world. This map shows protected area coverage (in percentage) of the world’s terrestrial (green gradient) and marine (blue gradient) ecoregions of the world. Source: UNEP-WCMC and IUCN, 2018a.

Asia

There are over 10 900 protected areas in Asia that cover 13.9% of the terrestrial environment and 1.8% of the marine and coastal areas. Protected area coverage beyond 12 nautical miles remains critically low; only 0.04% of the marine and coastal areas between 12 and 200 nautical miles in Asia are under protected area management. This is particularly significant as marine biodiversity is most pronounced in shallow waters. Coastal and marine protection per country is very low with no countries covering at least 10% of their marine area within national jurisdiction (0-200 nautical miles). Only four countries, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan and Thailand, have more than 5% of their territorial seas covered by protected areas.

Some countries like Bhutan and Brunei Darussalam have around 40% of their land protected while other 14 countries in Asia have less than 17% of their land covered by protected areas. China makes significant contributions to the region’s protected area coverage. In North West China, there are four vast protected areas that cover around 766 000 square km. If these areas were excluded, the total territorial coverage in Asia would drop from 13.9 to 10.2%.

The State of Protected Areas

The rich biodiversity found within Asia’s protected areas is under constant and immense threat. Asia’s high population density- 1.5 times the global average- is one of the major factors fuelling the degradation of these lands.  

IUCN points out three major categories of threats faced by protected areas: biological resource use, natural system modifications, and agricultural and aquaculture expansion. Biological resource use– the most frequently reported threat–refers to hunting, illicit wildlife trade, and logging inside the designated areas. IUCN suggests a total prevention of use of biological resources in the areas. Natural system modifications refer to management interventions like controlled burn and construction of dams that can cause habitat loss, degrading protected areas. While agricultural expansion leads to deforestation and aquaculture causes erosion of biodiversity within the protected areas.

In South East Asia, ‘biological resource use’ is growing with the rising demand for exotic and wildlife products like rhino horn, pangolins, bear bile, reptiles, turtles, orchids, corals and sharks. Illicit wildlife trade from Asia said to be worth in excess of $23 billion a year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Focusing on hydropower for their energy needs countries like Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam are building a number of dams in the Mekong River that flows through their territories. These ‘natural system modification’ projects will likely sound the death knell for many of the region’s protected species. A study by the Mekong River Commission released last year showed that Mekong fish stocks could fall by up to 40 percent as a result of the dam projects.

protected lands
Expansion of palm oil fields degraded the existing protected areas in Indonesia

Agricultural expansion, especially for timber, rubber, and palm oil, has been a major driver of forest loss in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia, 16% of the total primary forest–6.02 million hectares under protected areas– was lost during 2000-2012.  Meanwhile, large swathes of land within protected areas have been allocated for rubber and palm oil plantations by the governments in Cambodia and Laos.

Failure of governments to implement effective conservation policies and curbing corruption has let down the management of protected areas in the region. For instance, in Indonesia–a country with an abysmal transparency score and weak enforcement institutions–forestry remains one of the most graft-prone industries. This is partly rooted in the continuing decentralisation of power to local governments since 1998.  The result was an unprecedented increase in the sale of public land from local government to private actors for palm oil plantations and timber logging. Many of these transactions allegedly involved payment to local government officials, and resulted in dozens of major corruption cases like Agung Podomoro land case.

Globally, one-third of all protected areas are under intense human pressure.  Over six million square km of protected land face pressure from agriculture, encroaching human settlement, roads, light pollution, rail, and infrastructure development on waterways, recent studies have found. Only 10% of lands were completely free of human activity, but most of these regions are in remote areas of high-latitude nations, such as Russia and Canada. Wealthy and poor nations alike are failing to adequately enforce their protected areas.

Do Protected Areas Really Work?

Legal designation is hence a necessary but alone insufficient instrument for biodiversity protection. Devoid of enforcement and policing mechanisms, as well as of responsive and transparent institutions, protection remains more of an aspiration than a fact.

Protected areas’ effectiveness for biodiversity conservation is now questioned by many.  A study shows that not all protected areas are up to the standard set by the IUCN.  Many governments allow a number of destructive, unsustainable activities within the boundaries of these areas. Over 60% of areas are simply too small—less than one square kilometer—to save big or migrating species. Most protected areas are not well-connected in order to allow movement of animal and plant populations, especially in the face of worsening climate change.  While they help buffer species from habitat loss and overexploitation, protected areas do little to save species from other threats like climate change, pollution, and invasive species.

Governments have left most protected areas with too little money for management. Globally protected areas are underfunded to the tune of $18 billion a year: three times as much as is currently spent on managing protected areas ($6 billion). The poor management of these areas opens the door to any number of human impacts including poaching, illegal logging, habitat destruction, illegal fishing, etc.

protected lands
A successful conservation model: Corcovado National Park, 726,000 acres, Lakes Region, Chile

Solving the Crisis

The future is grim. The human population is likely to touch nine billion by 2035 causing an increased demand for resources that will take an unprecedented toll on protected areas at current per-capita consumption rates.

Policy-makers should stipulate a set of science-based, site-specific nature retention targets aimed at keeping natural systems intact and functioning. Governments should focus on outcomes that are positive for biodiversity, rather than increasing the number of areas. They should also follow the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA)’s framework guide to assess effectiveness of the areas.  

A well conserved protected area is a result of collaboration among law enforcement departments, policy-makers, local communities, and other stakeholders.  Objectives of managing protected areas, besides the primary one of biodiversity conservation, now also include social and economic ones. Reconciling the objectives with the needs of local livelihoods will require building partnerships and alliances with local businesses and communities. The Chilean Patagonia model, one of the successful collaborative conservation efforts in recent times, is a great example of such a partnership.

Forests in Southeast Asia have faced extensive deforestation in recent decades. Socioeconomic pathways of Southeast Asian countries will decide the fate of their forests.

Millions of hectares of once-lush, intact forests in Southeast Asia have given way to agriculture. If deforestation continues at the current pace, experts say, over half of the existing biodiversity in the region would disappear by the year 2100.

Scientists argue that the future of deforestation in Southeast Asia’s forests depends on the socioeconomic pathways the countries in the region will adopt. A group of researchers has boiled the future of forests in the region down to a few likely scenarios called Shared Socioeconomic Pathway (SSP) These scenario projections largely depend on the willingness of local governments to adopt and enforce effective climate change mitigation measures to protect the commons.

Southeast Asia’s forests, from 2005 to 2015, have lost over 80 million hectares—one-third—causing a loss of 4.5% of Aboveground Forest Carbon Stocks (AFCS). Indonesia and Malaysia are leading the way for forest clearance and land conversions to agriculture and palm oil plantations. 

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Maps showing the spatially allocated projected forest cover changes in Southeast Asia under the five shared socioeconomic pathways (SSPs) (2015–2050). The four insets show the spatially allocated projected forest cover changes in some parts of Laos and Vietnam (inset 1), Cambodia (inset 2), Malaysia (inset 3) and Indonesia (inset 4)

The group, scientists from the National Institute for Environmental Studies, the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, the University of Tsukuba in Japan and the European Commission Joint Research Centre in Italy, published their findings in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

The first scenario, SSP 1, assumes inclusive development and respect for perceived environmental boundaries, as well as high investment in human capital, education, and awareness. Conversely, SSP 3 presents a polar opposite dimension that assumes fragmentation, comparatively weak global institutions and a lack of cooperation in addressing global environmental concerns, together with poor investments in education and awareness.

Based on their projections, researchers found that SSP1— the green road scenario—would yield the greatest net forest cover increase of 9.5% (19.6 million hectares) and an 8% increase in AFCS by 2050.  SSP3— the pessimist path—would cause the greatest net forest cover loss of 2.5% (5.2 million hectares) and a 4% decrease in AFCS by the same year.  Southeast Asia could lose over 39,000 hectares of intact forests and 580,000 hectares of protected forests under SSP3. Intact forests are better at storing carbon as compared to degraded forests. The protected forest areas are also important reserves of tropical biodiversity.

Hectares of once-lush, intact forests in the Sambas District, Indonesia have given way to palm oil plantations
Photo by Wakx is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

For this study, the researchers constructed a spatiotemporal model of forest cover change in Southeast Asia from 2015 to 2050. They used the European Space Agency’s Climate Change Initiative (ESA-CCI) land cover maps as their data source to detect forest cover changes from the recent past to the present. Their research method was built on a state-of-the-art spatially explicit, pattern-based land change modeling approach, and employed the Land Change Modeler (LCM), which is available in a software package called TerrSet. Their approach included three major parts: forest cover change quantification, transition potential modeling, and forest cover change spatial allocation.

Based on their findings, the authors urge Southeast Asian countries to strive towards the SSP1 pathway encouraging policymakers and businesses in the region to work together to drive inclusive economic growth aligned with the UN sustainable development goals.

Initiatives like the New York Declaration on Forests and the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) can provide the fertile policy framework to boost restoration in the region.

There are reasons to be optimistic. “The awareness that government leaders and their respective peoples have of various global environmental issues, including deforestation and its widespread consequences, has undoubtedly increased in the last few decades,” the paper says. “Arguably, all of these things can have a significant impact on forest protection, conservation, and expansion, sustaining the likelihood of SSP 1—the sustainability scenario.”

 

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