The Sumatran tiger. I do believe if they are lost our planet will have been depleted of one of its finest works of art.
Unfortunately, palm oil plantations are primarily and increasingly found in the clear-cut primary rainforests of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea, areas of extremely high biodiversity. And we aren’t just losing the critically endangered Sumatran tigers, elephants, and orangutans, but also incredible numbers of plants and insects found nowhere else in the world. Here is a spectacular but very rare Stag Beetle (Cyclommatus chewi, Family Lucanidae), from the forests of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo):
Not only are we losing the species currently described by science, but also the ones that have never even been seen by a human eye. Approximately 1.2 million species of insect are currently known to science, and estimates vary as to the number of insect species left to be discovered, but range anywhere from one million to thirty million more. So even conservatively, we barely know half of what we are losing.
Companies like Cargill (The largest privately owned company in the US, infamous around the Bay Area as the company trying to block salt pond restoration efforts in favor of development), own, operate, and purchase from many palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia. The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), is high yielding and cheap to grow. Also, because of relatively new trans-fat labeling regulations in the US, many food organizations are looking for alternatives to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Palm oil is high in saturated fat, but it is, however, free of trans fats. Roughly half of all items on grocery store shelves now contain palm oil, from packaged food to body lotion to lipstick. On paper palm oil doesn’t sound so bad, who doesn’t want a trans-fat free oil that is efficient and cheap to grow? The problem is that the majority of agribusinesses manage their palm oil plantations in a highly unsustainable way simply because it’s cheap and they can get away with it.
These huge corporations participate in land-grabbing, the buying or leasing of large pieces of land in developing countries, and are allowed free reign to manage them. This results in environmental devastation as huge swaths of forest are cleared, and often burned wholly to the ground. Many of these pristine forests lie atop peatlands. Composed of an accumulation of partially decayed plant material, peat is nutrient and carbon-rich. However, when burned, peat forests release gigantic amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, and it is exactly this burning that has given Indonesia the title of third largest CO2 emitter in the world. In place of forests palm oil monocultures are planted, which have been likened to parking lots in their ability to sustain animal life.
The environment suffers undoubtedly, but so do local indigenous communities who are forced off their ancestral lands or coerced into living and working on palm oil plantations. Indeed there are more than 600 documented cases of social conflict in Indonesia related to palm oil.
To combat all this negative press, many corporations like Cargill pay dues to join the Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which in theory promises strict sustainability and human-rights practices by it’s member corporations. In practice, however, all companies have to do to gain the RSPO seal of approval is to cut the organization a check.
It’s frustrating that companies can act with such impunity, counting on consumers to buy their greenwashing tactics while they make a killing. I want to find out where their CEO’s live and release potbelly pigs on their lawns. Or throw angry marmots in their shower…BUT, until I get their addresses and a whole mess of pigs and marmots, I am going to be really careful about buying products that contain palm oil. Not because I think this will solve everything, but because the last thing these companies deserve is my money.