Saving the Rainforests – Conflict Palm Oil

Every year I donate a portion of book sales from my press, Moon Willow Press, to planting trees. It’s really just a niche micro-press, publishing about 2-4 books a year on average. It’s such a huge endeavor for me to run personally that I’ve now put a hold on submissions so I can complete some other projects. Maybe it’s a tiny business, but I’ve also been big on mitigating any environmental impact that I have had, and that means following sustainable printing plans as well as donating to programs that plant native trees in ecologically and economically depressed areas. In the past few years, this tree-planting donation has gone to a memorial forest in honor of my late father and is done through Trees, Water & People. This year I also donated to Rainforest Action Network (RAN). Note that donations do not infer endorsement from these organizations. RAN works all over the world, and I’m interested in many of their campaigns, especially those in my neck of the woods that fight oil sands. But RAN works with rainforests everywhere, and I want to help in whatever tiny way that I can. Because “be the change you want to see” is a great way to think, and if every one of us acted in whatever tiny way we could, it would add up to real positive change.

The RAN campaign I donated to this year was Conflict Palm Oil. My interest in this conflict began several years ago when reading about how Indonesian rainforests were being absolutely destroyed by the palm oil industry. Then in 2014 I watched Sumatra Burning, a documentary about it. It was enough to make my heart sink, my gut ache. The layers of complete destruction are overwhelming–from slavery to wiping out species of rainforest animals and deforestation to release of carbon dioxide. It’s one of these huge problems that if people just opened their eyes to it, they would be utterly horrified.

Some quick facts:

  • The oil is extracted from the fruit of the oil palms native to Africa, now grown primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia but also expanding across Central and West Africa and Latin America. (RAN)
  • Grown only in the tropics, the oil palm tree produces high-quality oil used primarily for cooking in developing countries. It is also used in food products, detergents, cosmetics and, to a small extent, biofuel. Palm oil is a small ingredient in the U.S. diet, but more than half of all packaged products Americans consume contain palm oil—it’s found in lipstick, soaps, detergents and even ice cream. (World Wildlife Fund)
  • This large-scale deforestation is pushing many species to extinction, and findings show that if nothing changes species like the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next 5-10 years, and Sumatran tigers less than 3 years. (Say No to Palm Oil)
  • Conflict palm oil is now one of the world’s leading causes of deforestation. (RAN)
  • The last parcel of Sumatran rainforest in which these three species all roam – along with rhinos, clouded leopards and sun bears – is vanishing at a dramatic pace as lucrative palm oil plantations illegally eat into tropical forestland. (The Guardian)
  • Many companies produce palm oil, and some have pledged to stop–but, according to a recent report, they have not. Nestlé, Mars and Hershey have been accused of breaking pledges to stop using “conflict palm oil” from deforested Indonesian jungles, just days before the annual Halloween confectionery frenzy. (The Guardian)
  • The palm oil industry has been linked to major human rights violations, including child labour in remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. Children are made to carry large loads of heavy fruit, weed fields and spend hours every day bent over collecting fruit from the plantation floor. Heat exhaustion and cuts and bruises from climbing thorny oil palms are commonplace in these cases, and more than often not, children receive little or no pay for their efforts. (Say No to Palm Oil)
  • Malaysian palm oil is on the US State Department’s “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor,” under both categories. Indonesian palm oil is only included under the child labor category, but a 2013 investigation by Bloomberg Businessweek revealed “widespread abuses of basic human rights” in “a tightly controlled system of forced labor” on 12 plantations in Indonesia. The article honed in on Kuala Lumpur Kepong, a Malaysian palm-oil giant with operations in Indonesia. (Eco-business News)
  • Palm oil production is also responsible for human rights violations as corporations often forcefully remove Indigenous Peoples and rural communities from their lands. Tragically, child labor and modern day slavery still occur on plantations in both Indonesia and Malaysia. (RAN)
  • Conflict Palm Oil is not only a local problem. The clearing of rainforests and carbon-rich peatlands for new plantations is releasing globally significant carbon pollution, making Conflict Palm Oil a major driver of human induced climate change. (RAN) Peatlands can hold up to 18 to 28 times as much carbon as the forests above them; when they are drained and burned, both carbon and methane are released into the atmosphere—and unless the water table is restored, peatlands continue to decay and release global warming emissions for decades. (Union of Concerned Scientists)
  • Today, rainforest areas the equivalent of 300 soccer fields are being destroyed every hour. This gives rise to numerous problems for the climate, environment, and people living in the forest: carbon dioxide emissions and loss of biodiversity (Rainforest Rescue)
  • Only a few manufacturers – mostly in the organic sector – label their products as containing palm oil and palm fat. Most companies disguise it, referring to it as “vegetable oils and fats”. (Rainforest Rescue)
  • Almost half of palm oil consists of saturated fats, which are known to cause high cholesterol and heart disease, and are generally regarded as a cause of obesity. Palm kernel oil, which is often used for cocoa icings, ice cream and caramel, contains up to 80 percent saturated fat. Palm oil contains fatty acid esters (3-MCPD and glycidol fatty acid esters) that are considered carcinogenic. (Rainforest Rescue)
  • Every year, blazing fires destroy forests and peatlands. Every year, thick smoke covers Indonesia and tens of thousands of people die prematurely from respiratory illness. These forest fires are a man-made crisis caused by some of the biggest palm oil and paper companies in the world. To ensure fires don’t take off again as predicted for 2016, global pressure is required so that companies using palm oil take serious action. Join 22-year-old Indonesian student Rahmi Carolina in pressuring companies to act on Indonesian Government’s new policy to stop the fires once and for all.
  • The areas being cleared for palm oil are particularly rich in carbon. Indonesian forests store even more carbon per hectare than the Brazilian Amazon thanks to their carbon-rich soil; palm cultivation there was responsible for 2 to 9 percent of worldwide emissions from tropical land use between 2000 and 2010. In Malaysia, the carbon stock of tropical forests can range up to 99 million kilograms of carbon per square mile. That’s equivalent to the emissions from driving an average car from New York to San Francisco and back 76 times. (Union of Concerned Scientists)

So it seems to me that if we buy candy, soaps, detergents, ice cream, and other products that contain conflict palm oil, we are directly supporting slavery, child labor, indigenous people’s displacement, species endangerment and extinction, increased carbon dioxide, deforestation, wildfires, loss of biodiversity, and in the meantime increasing our cholesterol, obesity, and heart disease. There’s just something horribly wrong with this picture.

What can we do?

  • Stop buying products made with conflict palm oil. If you’re not sure because of incorrect labeling, talk to the store or the supplier–support organically made and grown products.
  • Vote with your heart.
  • Use your voice: research, share knowledge, let your friends and family know about conflict palm oil.
  • Volunteer to help organizations such as Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Rescue, Say No to Palm Oil, and others–they are doing the legwork; join them in the race!

Featured image by Craig – own work, Public Domain

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