Palm Oil-By Courtney Ramos
An emphasis on the extinction Orangutans
Sumatran orangutans are only found in in Indonesia, and Bornean orangutans are only found in Indonesia and Malaysia. These countries are also the biggest producers and exporters of palm oil. The beloved orangutan is intelligent, strong, and live a semi-solitary life in the trees. “Like all great apes, orangutans have long lifetimes and low reproductive rates which makes it difficult for them to recover when large numbers are killed” (1970). The biggest threat to orangutans is illegal logging of the tropical rainforest for palm cultivation. The Bornean and Sumatran orangutan are both listed as Endangered and Critically Endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). “It is estimated that between 1,000 to 5,000 orangutans are killed each year in oil palm” (Sataksig 2018). “Deforestation, largely for palm oil in Indonesia has contributed to 3,000 orangutan deaths. At this current rate of destruction, it's predicted orangutans will face complete extinction by 2050” (FOR THE WILD, 2019). Development for palm production annihilates wildlife population and also displaces indigenous people. Not to mention exploitation of workers and child labor. The loss of forests that store carbon contributes to climate change causing up to three times the greenhouse gas emissions of fossil fuels. “The use of bribery or armed force by logging companies is commonly reported” (1970). Green washing palm oil as EU Renewable Directive has also help accelerates destruction. Palm oil monoculture has destroyed precious dense ecosystems; environmental justice is critical.
A Brief History of Palm Oil
The African oil and fruit palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.) are a versatile oil and has been utilized for thousands of years; it is native to Africa and was brought to South-East Asia. Its oil is derived from the mesocarp of the fruit. In the last 50 years there has been a remarkable expansion in cultivation and is now the world’s leading source of vegetable oil. Palm oil products are used in nearly everything’ most popular consumer products ranging from cereal, cosmetics, to cleaning products, and biodiesel. It is desired for products because it increases the consistency, and acts as an occlusive agent (keeping your ice cream and lipstick the perfect texture). It also is resistant to oxidation therefore it gives products a longer shelf life. Palm oil is the second most demanded oil after petroleum used in the world it’s also stable at high temperatures, colorless and odorless. “Indonesia and Malaysia produce and export 85% of palm oil making these countries the world's largest producers” (FOR THE WILD,2019). Palm oil is extremely efficient, “35% of all vegetable oil on less than 10% of the land allocated to oil crops. Alternatives like soybean or coconut oil would need between four and ten times more land to produce the same amount. This would just shift the problem to other parts of the world, threatening other people and wildlife” (Ending deforestation for palm oil, 2019). Although, Palm Oil is an incredible product, and still less of a threat than other hypothetical oil cultivation; I believe the problem lies in mass production and globalization.
Lens/Approach 1: Environmental Justice
Almost all of Orangutan habitat has disappeared because of the heightened demand and its low prices for palm oil, point to continued growth in production and cropland area in the near future. “Production is centered in Indonesia and Malaysia because they are the most cost-efficient for setting up and running oil palm plantations: wages and production costs are low and ideal ago-climatic factors deliver high per-hectare (ha) yields” (Clay 2004; Basiron 2007). The orangutan is a charismatic, arboreal primate that depends on the lowland rain forests and peat forests of Borneo and Sumatra. Unfortunately, these lands are claimed for establishing oil palm plantations. Orangutans are tree-dwellers and depend on the canopies of trees where they find food playing an important role for the health of the rain forest climbing from branch to branch dispersing seeds. This makes them responsible for maintaining the ecosystem. They are not knuckle walkers, but are forced to the ground after the forest is demolished leaving them vulnerable and starving. Even worse, they are a protected endangered species yet they are hardly protected at all. They are shot as agricultural pests, and are often poached in the illegal pet trade.
Lens/Approach 2: political economy
Capitalist agriculture expansion is one of the biggest problems for the environment. Deforestation is a symptom of inevitable crises in capitalist agriculture. Globalization is the driver for illegal logging and palm oil cultivation. Production not only affects wildlife but it also affects the people who live there. These forests provide livelihoods to people, many of whom have suffered displacement at the hands of dishonest palm oil companies. These companies find loopholes to increase production ignoring social responsibility to the rights of the local communities and wildlife. It’s sad that we live in a time that we can’t trust that so called, “legitimate” organizations are for the best interest of the planet. For example, The RSPO (Round table on Sustainable Palm Oil), which the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) helped create, charges companies ranging from growers of palm oil to cosmetic brands a fee in order to make a claim that, “sustainable palm oil” is being produced and used. This is controversial because the palm oil value chain has grown and in the hands of a few private sectors. It’s also sad that climate change and environmentalism have been hijacked for a means of “Eco-imperialism”. The demand for sustainability measures pressures corporations and growers to do whatever they have to keep making money. “By setting up "round tables" of industrialists on strategic commodities such as palm oil, timber, sugar, soy, bio fuels and cocoa, WWF International has become a political power that is too close to industry and in danger of becoming reliant on corporate money” (Vidal, 2014). You can bet that money collected for orangutan conservation campaigns was not utilized for their best interest. Essentially, the WWF has sold its soul to corporations and is now helping to “green wash” operations.
Unless bold and courageous action is taken now, we would have stood by and watched one of our closest relatives go extinct. “There are over 200 names for palm oil and ingredients derived from palm oil. In 2014 the European Union made palm oil labeling compulsory, but in the United States, it is legal, and common for companies to use the term “vegetable oil” when they really mean palm oil. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any products that have ingredients with the word “palm” in it, i.e. palmitoyl, palmate, palm kernel etc. Another trick you can use is by looking at a product’s saturated fat content, if it makes up more than 40% of its total fat content, it will almost always contain palm oil.” Reluctant to any label claiming palm oil to be sustainable is not true. Conservationists doing the actual studies will tell you that it’s not possible, there is no such thing as sustainable palm oil. “Less than 7% of the total production of palm oil is certified sustainable” (FOR THE WILD, 2019). This is another reminder how everything we do matters and is interconnected. Food wise, it is best to consume locally to help reduce environmental impact. The take away from this paper is to be more aware of what we are doing and what we consume, especially palm oil. Ways to participate in facilitating change is to write officials in both cabinets of Malaysia and Indonesia of our global concern for wildlife. If you learn that a product company is not being transparent of their ingredients, let them know your disgust of palm oil in the product. There also needs to be strengthening of initiatives of protection and security of the forests and wildlife including surveillance and legitimate programs. I believe in what Philosopher Arne Naess who coined “deep ecology” that “once an individual realizes that he or she is not a narrow-enclosed self and properly identifies with all of nature, anthropocentric thought or action becomes-simply -illogical” (Robbins, Hintz, & Moore 2014).