Think for a moment of orangutans.They are perambulating shaggy carpets of orange hair. They can eat hanging nonchalantly upside down. They use tools and appear to have loving relationships. They are superb. They have 97% of the same DNA as humans. They also have the sad distinction of being the first great ape likely to go extinct because humans wanted shampoo.
What is palm oil?You've probably consumed some today, to feed, clean, moisturise or decorate yourself. It's derived from the fruit of the West African Elaeis guineensis, although there is a South American cousin, Elaeis melanococca. It is found in crisps, chocolate, biscuits, cooking oil, moisturisers, make up, make up remover, lip salve, cakes, conditioner, lubricant, margarine, polishes, cereals, soap and shampoo.
I say “it is found”, but actually it would be more appropriate to say it is hidden in those products – it comes in many disguises, the most common of which is “vegetable oil”. Currently there is no legal requirement for manufacturers to state the origin of the oil they’re using.
Palm oil is especially useful because it stays about as solid as cool butter at warm room temperature - not many fats do that, and it stops your lipstick melting. It’s even in our cars: the diesel you buy in the UK already has palm oil mixed in, and the percentage is rising (from 2.7% to near 10%) so that we can meet EU biofuels “sustainability criteria” under the Renewable Energy Directive.
Statistics:•Between 1990-2005 25.6%of Indonesia was deforested
• Only 4.5% of Indonesia is protected under IUCN categories I-V.
•Due to fires and peat drying, Indonesia is the world's third largest greenhouse gas polluter despite having the world's 22nd largest economy.
•There are an estimated 45,000 orangutans left in the wild. A decade ago, there were twice that number.
•The Borneo orangutan is endangered, the Sumatran critically endangered. They exist nowhere else in the world.
•The latest data estimates that there are now only around 6,500 of the latter remaining in the wild
•In order to be considered genetically viable in the long term, populations must number 500 or more individuals. On Sumatra, only 3 such populations exist.
Why is growing palm oil bad?It isn’t, in itself, but vast areas of tropical rainforest are logged in order to do it. And rainforest is amazingly difficult to regenerate – the ecosystems they contain are highly vulnerable and require precisely adjusted conditions and a lot of human help if they are to recolonize, especially if they’ve been logged repeatedly. In particular, rainforest soil tends to be very thin: without the trees to hold it together, all the nutrients wash away quickly in the tropical rainstorms. So logged areas become wastelands.
In the rich peatland rainforests of Borneo, the canals dug to float out the timber upset the water table and drain water from the areas where it’s needed. Indonesia and its neighbours now have an enormous problem with smoke 3 months each year due to fires smouldering in the drying peat. That peat was never meant to dry out: even if it doesn’t burn, it gradually oxidises, releasing about 172 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year in Indonesia alone. Tropical rainforest (unlike forest in Australia, for example) is just not good at dealing with fires. It doesn’t recover well. And fires set to clear secondary forest or previously farmed land are very good at leaping out of control. The 1997 fires in Borneo released about 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon. 9.7 million hectares of its primary rainforest was destroyed – about 14 million football pitches, or about the same area as Scotland and Wales combined.
The worst thing is that since palm oil concessions are easier to get than logging concessions, unscrupulous companies will often get an oil palm concession, log an area as if for palm planting, make a quick profit on the timber and then buy another palm oil concession for a new area, without even bothering to put in the effort to grow the oil.
You also get legal selective logging permitted in primary rainforest. And once it’s been logged a bit, it can be re-categorised as non-virgin, secondary forests. Then it can be legally converted for plantations.
Don't imagine for a minute that companies evil enough to wipe out ecosystems for a living have no impact on the lives of humans around them. Local people living in the forests that are being destroyed often don't speak the state language and don't know how to report abuses. Setting aside human “rights” to one’s ancestral lands and the force often used to evict people, NGO workers report seeing villagers having to dig wells 200m deep in order to reach the newly drained water table. Logging company employees tend to get a fairly rough deal too – the Papua New Guinea Department of Labor and Employment compared the treatment of workers at the ecologically infamous Malaysian company Rimbunan Hijau with slavery.
Does logging / palm oil affect other animals besides orangutans?Yes. All sorts of species are threatened by the activities of the palm oil industry, from elephants to vines. You may only have heard of a few of the most picturesque – the Sumatran tiger, the Borneo rhino, the world’s largest flower (rafflesia), gibbons, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and the world’s longest known stick insect (56.7cm). So many haven’t even been named yet. And this is only in South East Asia.
The orangutan is particularly special. Their name means “man of the woods”. The human-chimp difference in genetic code is around 1.5%; human-orangutan is about 3%. The Sumatran orangutan is “critically endangered”, the one in Borneo merely “endangered”. Orangutans are remarkable as apes, in that, while they lead a relatively solitary life, when put in close proximity in re-release centres, they are renowned for getting on with each other extremely well. You can't say the same of chimps (apart from the sex-crazed bonobo), gorillas or humans. Many species are threatened by our palm oil craving, but whether or not you feel, as I do, that biodiversity is a good in its own right, orangutans are the species about whose imminent destruction we should feel most ashamed.
So should I boycott palm oil?Helen Buckland, UK director of SOS Sumatra is very clear on this: a boycott of palm oil in its various disguises is not the answer.
• It’s too disguised. Mostly it’s “vegetable oil”. There’s no immediately recognizable, accurate, orangutan-safe logo, nor is there likely to be soon – the certification process is long, complex and expensive, and lots of the world market of palm oil is mixed. "We get a lot of people coming up to us and saying 'I’ve stopped buying palm oil'. Good luck to them, but I’m afraid they probably haven’t. And unless you’re telling the companies involved about it, there’s absolutely no point."
• Since it is a vast part of the Indonesian economy, a world boycott of palm oil products would plunge many people into (even greater) poverty.
• And a world boycott is implausible in the extreme: if we in the west don’t buy the cheap unsustainable palm oil, emerging economies like China and India will be only too happy to snap it up.
• Product makers will simply turn to alternative sources of fat instead. Like soybeans. Goodbye Amazon rainforest.
• Only 27% of the world’s sustainably produced palm oil was sold last year. This is partly because companies doubt they can pass the cost on to the consumer. At the moment there is no one guaranteed logo that you can look for, though the RSPO are doing their best. Only 40% of Indonesian palm oil producers belong to the RSPO. That means 60% really don’t give a damn.
• Paper, fires, timber and the pet trade are also issues, though oil palm growth is the most pressing threat. In Borneo, more than 1 million hectares were destroyed by the infamous Mega-Rice Project (more info). If world consumption of palm oil were to end tomorrow, we’d still need to tackle the problem of getting governments to listen to scientists about the most sensible ways to manage their resources.
So what hope is there?Helen is convinced that there is a way to sustainably produce enough palm oil to meet the world’s demands. ‘If oil palm plantations are only sited suitably – that is, not on peat (too acidic) not on steep slopes, and so on – there are millions of spare hectares out there where it could be grown. And the growing itself could be made much more efficient. You’ve got to look to the sites of future expansion and persuade the governments to allow sustainable concessions in the right areas.’
NGOs like SOS Sumatra spend their time working with scientists, local people, governments and corporations, trying to guide the unwieldy and sometimes idiotic decision making process to something that is sustainable for humans and the environment.
• Conservationist groups are out there and can come up with some great ideas: a rope bridge connecting two patches of forest can help isolated orang-utans get to each other and mingle.
• "We’ve got to make the rainforests more valuable to the Malaysian and Indonesian governments standing than felled," Helen continues. "Getting an area protected on paper is a good first start, though it still falls to NGOs to do most of the hands-on protection". She sees the future as one of landswaps and carbon credits.
• Right now, it’s a really exciting time. As of 27th May 2010, Norway, Germany, US, UK, Australia, Japan and France have agreed to combine to give $4bn to Indonesia in exchange for a 2 year moratorium on new concessions for conversion of forest. I’m staggered that any government can take such productive and intelligent action.
This will give vital breathing space to the NGOs in Indonesia, on the front line, trying to replant and preserve.
It won’t, however, solve the problem. Yuyun Indradi, Political Advisor for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, points out that no measures are yet in place to halt the activities of existing concessions, which may already have gone too far – also, it will likely just send the companies straight over to the precious African rainforests. "There are conflicting claims on land and while we are having this moratorium, this agency can review those conflicts," says the U.N.-backed forest preservation scheme REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), evasively.
But it’s an experimental step towards a global solution, in which countries that can afford it help poor countries reach a level of development where they can start to think about sustainability, meanwhile preserving the lungs of the planet which the countries that own them are too poor and/or corrupt to protect. Rainforest will eventually grow back, although it may take many centuries (unlike northern forests, which can manage it in 30-100 years). But it takes a lot longer to re-evolve an orang-utan. Although, if we can't halt deforestation, we'll be much more concerned with staying alive on a toxified planet than we will with what we've destroyed along the way.
In the end, palm oil consumption is not something we as the consumers can tackle; it's something the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have to deal with and we can only pray they do. Actually, we can do a damn sight more than pray...
What can I do?Let your wallet do the talking ethicalconsumer.org has some great lists of guilt-free products, and WWF has some interesting score cards rating giant companies and manufacturers for their palm oil sourcing. It's worth taking everything with a helping of salt - Unilever, for example, have turned themselves around from their palm oil PR disasters of pre-2008 to become one of our most ethical companies...or have they?
Donate. SOS Sumatra, Rainforest Alliance and WWF have easy forms where you can do it now. You can buy a tree for Sumatra here. If you fancy making a bigger contribution to those in the front line, perhaps by a sponsored run or even going out to Borneo as a volunteer for a few weeks, try www.orangutantrop.com
Donation is of course vital. But more important still is to get involved.
Hassle supermarkets. The Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose, Boots, the Body Shop, Marks & Spencer, Ikea and Musgrave Budgens Londis are all members of the RSPO. While the RSPO has been criticised for being remarkably slow and confused, (and possibly having conflicted interests) it does at least provide us with a list of retailers to whom this issue is important. If they're a multinational and they're not on there, they really don't care.
Technically, being an RSPO member means that a retailer has undertaken to buy only RSPO certified palm oil for their own products. To skip a blandly reassuring reply about their RSPO membership, state in your first communication that you know they’re a member of the RSPO, you know that this means they have a responsibility to buy RSPO certified palm oil, and you want to know if the palm oil in all their own brand products is guaranteed sustainable. Waitrose, for example, intends to achieve this by 2012. It won’t hurt to remind them that we’re waiting for it.
Support the existing certification systems: anything labelled:
... should be OK.
Campaign - for example, ask the government to change the labelling laws so that consumers are more aware of what they're buying. Add your voice. Follow and retweet updates on Twitter, accept environmental newsletters so that you can join campaigns effectively. Here are some campaigns with SOS Sumatra that you can join straight away. The economist has published a fascinating and generally uplifting analysis on the political power of campaigns on the palm oil issue
10 years ago public opinion managed to convert most of the fishing industry to producing dolphin friendly tuna. Greenpeace has managed to persuade McDonald's and other big food retailers to help slow deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Surely we can save one of our nearest relatives.
Other useful links:
The Orangutan Tropical Peatland Research Project - Working on the ground in Kalimantan, Borneo
SOS Sumatra - Working for the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan: the UK HQ is on our very own Cowley Road.
Mongabay.com - Intelligent and comprehensive news about rainforests. There's a good interview with Shawn Thompson, writer of The Intimate Ape
Palm Oil Action Shopping Guide
Rainforest Alliance - who, while supporting the efforts of RSPO, have created their own, complimentary certification system
RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) - aiming to do for palm oil production what the FSC has done for the timber industry.
Palm Oil names and pseudonyms:•Sodium Laureth Sulphates (can also be from coconut)
•Sodium Lauryl Sulphates (can also be from ricinus oil)
•Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate (coconut and/or palm)
•Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS) Palmate
•Palm Oil Kernel / Kernal
•Hydrated palm glycerides
•Sodium isostearoyl lactylate (derived from vegetable stearic acid)
•Cetyl palmitate and octyl palmitate
•anything with palmitate at the end