Palm oil is a vegetable oil taken from the palm fruit grown on oil palm trees. These trees are native to Western Africa. Because of the demand for palm oil, which is used in a variety of food products, it is now grown throughout Africa and also in Asia, North America, and South America. There is, however, a devastating cost to feeding the demands for palm oil that comes in the from of climate change, animal cruelty, deforestation, and human rights violations.
According to the WWF, “300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production.”
This sort of large-scale habitat destruction does not come without a cost. There are many victims that suffer at the hands of palm oil production. To get a full picture of how palm production impacts an entire ecosystem and the many dynamic individuals that call that system home, let’s take a look into the environmental, animal, and human impact of palm oil production.
Deforestation and Climate Change
Indonesia, where the majority of palm oil is grown, currently has the world’s highest rate of deforestation. As more and more sections of native rainforest are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions have skyrocketed. Nearly 85 percent of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from land use activities, including deforestation and peat fires (another practice related to palm production).
Rainforests are essentially the lungs of our planet, and when they are destroyed we all suffer. Cutting down forests not only leads to the release of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, but it also diminishes the earth’s natural ability to mitigate these heat trapping gases. While it may seem that deforestation in Indonesia is far from your own home, the more heat that is trapped into the world’s atmosphere the more rapidly the effects of climate change take hold.
Child Labor and Poverty
Palm oil plantations are negatively affecting people living in the rural regions of Borneo and Sumatra. The local people depend on the rainforest that is being destroyed. The only reason these people become plantation workers is because they have no other choice. When large agriculture corporations move into rural areas to start palm plantations, they are able to virtually take over local land because people do not have the “legal right” to it. Before palm oil, many rural communities relied on rice or rubber farming, but when they are pushed out by palm producers, the only option is to switch to farming palm oil. It takes three to four years for palm plants to bear fruit, meaning there is no source of income and workers are paid a meager $2.50 per day until the plantations begin to generation income.
The palm oil industry is also linked to child labor. In Indonesia and Malaysia, children are forced to carry heavy loads of fruit and spend hours bent over collecting fruit. For this work, children are either paid very little or nothing at all.
An estimated 2.5 million people have been displaced in Borneo since 1970 due to the expansion of palm oil plantations.
Deforestation is one of the main threats to the species living in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra. But it isn’t the only threat. Poachers and wildlife smugglers, through the palm oil production, are easily accessible to the animals here. Orangutans are the real victims here. They’ve been found buried alive and attacked by machetes. In the last twenty years, over 50,000 orangutans have died through deforestation. Ninety percent of orangutan habitat has been destroyed. So many innocent lives have been taken. When parts of the rainforest are cleared, orangutans are left without food. In order to feed themselves, they have no choice but to enter nearby villages in search for food. As a result, mother orangutans are killed by poachers. And their babies are stolen from them and sold to wildlife parks or kept as pets.
The fact that orangutans are being killed en masse is yet another contributor to environmental deterioration. Every year, up to 5,000 orangutans die at the hands of deforestation. Orangutans maintain the health of the eco system, by spreading rainforest seeds in Indonesia. We rely on them for the existence of the forest. The cost of losing the orangutan is much greater than the cost of the need for palm oil.
A number of other species suffer at the hands of palm oil plantations. The Sumatran tiger, Sun Bear, Pygmy Elephant, and proboscis Monkey all face extinction because of deforestation and poaching.
What Can YOU Do?
We can’t ignore the fact that palm oil is damaging our eco system, our animals and the poverty stricken people of Borneo and Sumatran. Human rights laws are being violated through the palm oil plantations. The fact is, we have so much to lose in return for mass palm oil production. Is it worth the devastating consequences that are affecting humans, animals and the environment? If you are against child labor, animal extinction, and climate change, be a conscious consumer.
Driving down your own consumption of palm oil can help drive down global demands. Raising awareness about the damage that is being wrought for consumer goods is the first step to making a change. For smarter shopping, check out this guide to palm oil alternatives and this list of palm-oil free products as well.
Image source: Firstpeoples.com