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The Problem with Palm

Updated: Jan 6, 2020

Inside the Borneo Rainforest: Deforestation and the Palm Oil Industry

I imagine Borneo as rainforests are depicted in movies and described in books. Mountainous landscapes rich in forests, freshwater rivers dissecting vast peatlands, birds chirping, butterflies fluttering, and the smell of fresh air after it rains. However, after learning about the invasion of big shot palm oil companies, my dreams of this enticing place are vanished in a haze. The chorus of birds are drowned out by the sound of tractors, and the smell of fresh air is masked by that of smoke.

Indonesia and Malaysia account for 90 per-cent of global palm oil production, occurring primarily on the tropical islands of Borneo and Sumatra. In 2009, there was an estimated 20 million tons of palm oil produced. This year, the Indonesian government is hoping to achieve double that amount, making total production equivalent to 40 million tons of oil! To reach this target, deforestation has accelerated to make way for new palm oil plantations and access roads. Borneo alone has already lost over half of its forests as a result.

Population increases, demand increases, deforestation increases; it's a pretty simple equation yet the outcome is catastrophic, and our climate is suffering because of it.

So what is palm oil?

Palm oil comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. It is found in at least 50 per-cent of packaged goods we consume regularly, making it the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. Companies thrive off of it because it's cheap and it's versatile (they can pretty much put it in anything; name it!)

The fruit itself is highly profitable because it is grown in abundance and can yield two types of oil: palm crude oil and palm kernel oil. Both can be used in everything from food, to beauty and skin care products. In addition, extraction of palm kernel oil creates a by-product known as palm kernel expeller (PKE). PKE is largely used in livestock feed or as a biofuel. So, as you can see, oil palm trees are a hot commodity (hey, that rhymes!)

Palm Oil Fruit

So what's the problem?

Well, as peatlands and forests are being removed for palm oil, the rainforest is drying out and becoming susceptible to forest fires. Not only is this destroying habitat and endangering species, but the increasing forest fires are converting one of our greatest terrestrial carbon sinks, into one of the world's greatest carbon emitters. In fact, Indonesia is considered the third largest greenhouse gas emitter worldwide according to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), and this is primarily due to illegal logging and the palm oil industry.

The Borneo rainforest in particular plays a vital role in helping regulate carbon in our atmosphere. Borneo contains an abundance of tropical peat forests. These forests are naturally dense with moisture and can store more carbon than any other ecosystem in the world. Carbon is removed from the atmosphere by trees and other vegetation as a source of food. It is stored in the trunk and roots while it grows, and then released back into the atmosphere when it dies; a natural ecological process known as photosynthesis. This process occurs in all types of living plants.

A place like Borneo that is covered in tropical rainforest with thousands of plant species, must store an insane amount of carbon. As these tropical forests are being inflamed and destroyed, all of that stored carbon is being released back into the atmosphere at accelerating rates, fuelling climate change. Not to mention, the smoke from these fires is degrading air quality and putting human health at risk.

A natural biological mechanism for removing access carbon from our atmosphere exists in these tropical forests, so shouldn't we be preserving them instead of destroying them?

On top of releasing copious amounts of carbon back into the atmosphere, deforestation is also impacting soil health and water quality on the island. Trees and other vegetation are important in helping maintain soil stability and promoting plant re-growth. Not only do they provide moisture and nutrients to the soil, but roots and vegetation help prevent soils from eroding. When these forests are removed, the soil becomes exposed to the elements and starts to degrade. This ultimately increases the risk of flooding. When flooding occurs, there is an increase in run-off entering freshwater rivers. Due to soil erosion, this run-off likely contains higher loadings of sediment. Increased sediment loadings in freshwater rivers in-turn impacts the aquatic ecosystems, and the communities downstream who rely on the rivers as their primary water source. It's like a domino effect.

The part that fuels my motivation to protect this fragile ecosystem, however, is the thought that one day some of the world's most exotic species may be completely wiped out from our planet as a result of deforestation. I admit that it may be a selfish thought, brought upon by my hopes of one day getting to witness these incredible wild animals firsthand.

Borneo and Sumatra are home to some of the world's most unique species. The clouded leopard, orangutan, Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhino, and pygmy elephant are a few of the many species you can find in these enchanting forests. In fact, Sumatra is the only place in the world where the latter four species live amongst eachother!

The palm oil industry is posing an existential crisis on many of these animals. Elephants, tigers, rhinos, and orangutans are all classified as endangered species on IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species; with orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and Sumatran rhinos on the verge of becoming extinct in the wild. Their habitats are being destroyed, which is forcing them to migrate to new isolated areas that are unsuitable for them to live in and reproduce. As a result, many of these animals are facing local extinction. This is particularly of concern for orangutans and elephants who require vast lands to live in and survive. Furthermore, deforestation is allowing poachers and hunters to access parts of the forest that would have otherwise been untouched. As a result, many orangutans and other animals have been captured or killed as victims of the illegal animal trade.

According to IUCN, nearly 50 years ago there were an estimated 288,500 orangutans that existed in the wild. Since then the population in Borneo alone has dropped to more than half, with even less existing in Sumatra.

So how can we help?

Unfortunately, boycotting palm oil is not an adequate solution. The reality is, Indonesia relies greatly on palm oil production for economic stability and smallholder farmers depend on it for income to feed and care for their families. In addition, palm oil plays a crucial role in helping feed the entire planet, especially those in developing countries who rely on it for cooking. It is the most viable option because it is cheaper than other vegetable oils, and palm oil trees can yield more oil per hectare than any other vegetable oil in the world (therefore requiring less land use)!

So, since we can't cut it out completely, we must find a way to produce it sustainably. Luckily, a team of highly skilled professionals have already done this for us (phew!).

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a not-for-profit organization that has developed environmental and social requirements that companies must meet in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). If a company follows the standards laid out by RSPO, then it means the palm oil being produced is being done so in a way that minimizes negative impacts on the environment and surrounding communities, as well as ensures fair and ethical working conditions for employees.

To avoid investing in products that contain crude palm oil, a good start would be to look at the ingredients in the common products you use and food you consume regularly. Once you identify where palm oil is present in your life, you can start looking for alternate brands or products that are palm oil free or RSPO certified.

You can find palm oil in everyday products including shampoo, toothpaste, lipstick, and laundry detergents. Check common foods like sauces and spreads, packaged bread, biscuits, margarine, and cereals. Look at processed foods, crackers, potato chips, even ice-cream and chocolate (I know, that one hurts)! WWF has started scoring retailers, manufactures, and food service companies on their progress towards becoming 100% RSPO certified. You can take a look at the most recent 2016 Scorecard, and see how sustainable some of your favourite suppliers are with respect to palm oil.

Unfortunately, the tricky part with palm oil is that it is often disguised. It can take on different names such as Palm Extract, Palmate, or Saturated Fatty Acid (and that's only 3 of the 200 names that exist!) Check out the list here to see what other names it may be disguised under!

Some things I found around my house that contain palm oil or one of its derivatives, including palm kernel oil, sodium laureth sulphate, cocoa butter, vegetable oil, and PEG-100 stearate.

Last, but not least, support organizations that are focused on protecting and preserving the precious ecosystems and endangered wildlife that exist in these areas.

This is Gito my adopted orangutan (pretty cute, huh?)

I adopted Gito after learning about threatened orangutans while watching Before the Flood a couple years ago; Leonardo DiCaprio's captivating documentary on climate change and its catastrophic effects on our environment. A great watch if you want to learn more about global climate issues, or if you're a big fan of Leo (like me!).

Gito was a victim of wildlife trafficking. He was abandoned by his owners and left in a box to die. When the International Animal Rescue (IAR) team found him, he was malnourished, dehydrated, and suffering from a severe skin condition. He was only three months old! Gito was brought to the rehabilitation Centre in West Borneo, where he was treated immediately among other endangered orangutans.

IAR provides rehabilitation for orangutans and other wild animals who have been removed from their habitats, harmed, or neglected. The rescued animals are cared for before being released back into protected areas in the wild, and those that are no longer able to fend for themselves are given a permanent sanctuary to live in. In addition, IAR works to protect vital habitat and ecosystems to ensure species can continue to live and reproduce. This includes various conservation projects, and bringing awareness to communities, governments institutions, and private stakeholders, to encourage them to take action in helping protect these areas.

I receive updates on Gito every now and then. He made astounding progress during his first week at the rehabilitation centre, and has grown into a well-rounded orangutan who loves to eat (something we have in common).

It's been surprising to me how many people are still unaware of what palm oil is. What I've recently learned is that bringing awareness to the impacts of palm oil production is important. Educating ourselves, as well as others, is the first step in helping to truly make a difference.

If you've made it this far, I hope something I said sparked a flame inside you that will encourage you to check the ingredients of your shampoo bottle or loaf of bread next time you're at the store. Refuse products containing crude palm oil, and support companies who are taking action to save the precious habitats and wildlife that make this planet a truly remarkable one!



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