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The Cost of that Chocolate: A Dollar and a Million Acres of Rainforest
The devastating consequences of palm oil

By Ling Rao

Ice cream, cookies, cake mix, chocolate bars, lipstick, Easter eggs, face wash, doughnuts, potato chips, baby formula, and shaving cream; can you guess what they have in common? They use palm oil.

The center of a billion dollar industry, palm oil is used in about 50% of all packaged goods in a typical supermarket. It is derived from oilseeds of the oil palm tree, native to West Africa, but has become an especially lucrative crop for Malaysia and Indonesia. Its production is bound to increase, as worldwide demand for palm oil has shot up by 485% in the last decade! Here’s why:

1) In comparison to other oilseeds, palm oilseeds yield the highest amount of oil per area.

2) The two largest importers, China and India, will continue to develop and grow in population, increasing the demand for vegetable oil.

3) Palm oil is favored over partially hydrogenated oils because transfats contribute to heart disease and other medical problems. Palm oil also contributes to health issues, though it is still considered the better alternative.

4) European countries, in efforts to move away from fossil fuels, have subsidized biofuel production and driven up the demand for palm oil. As a result, Europe is the leading importer of palm oil.

Unfortunately, palm oil plantations todayPalm oil devastation come at the steep price of destroying a biome characterized by its incredible complexity and biodiversity: the tropical rainforest. Indonesia, palm oil’s top producer, has felled half of its rainforest, the third largest swath in the world. Borneo (also called Kalimantan) is Indonesia’s largest island, where plantations occupy an area the size of California and Florida combined. Permission has been granted by the government to convert 70% of remaining rainforest into acacia and palm oil plantations. At the current rate of conversion, the UN’s Environmental Program (UNEP) estimates that 98% Indonesia’s rainforest will be gone by 2022.

The destruction of habitat will exacerbate losses in biodiversity and climate change. Additionally, peatlands (wetlands with thick organic soil composed of dead or decaying plant material) are burned along with the forest. Peatlands store an immense amount of carbon, and burning them releases this carbon into the atmosphere. Clearing the rainforest and peatlands will worsen the state of climate change. Furthermore, hundreds of endangered species will only continue to suffer from habitat loss. Orangutans are great apes exclusive to Asia. Between 2004-2008, the orangutan population fell by 14% largely due to palm oil expansion. Orangutans are only found on Borneo and Sumatra islands in Indonesia and are threatened with extinction, primarily due to human activities.

The disappearance of the rainforest also impacts forest-dwelling people. Indigenous communities are often negatively affected and experience social upheaval due to transformation of the rainforest. They rely on the rainforest for their livelihood, and land disputes with corporations are common. Multinational corporations are granted land concessions from the government that do not respect or recognize indigenous territories, thus corporate land-grabbing is a major human rights issue. One example reported by The Guardian: near the town of Rengit, Malaysia, a community forest was burned down, and the villagers suspect the palm oil company is to blame. A villager from Bayesjaya told The Guardian that, “Life is terrible now. We are ruined. We used to get resin, wood, timber, fuel from the forest.” In other parts of the world, displaced peoples have accused multinationals of misleading them, making unkept promises about employment and development, and forcing locals off their homelands.

Those defending the palm oil industry say that it brings much needed employment and revenue, spurring developments in education, healthcare and infrastructure. In another interview with The Guardian, former Guatemalan economics minister Velásquez stated that, "if it wasn't for the palm plantations, the region would be prone to poverty, violence, hunger and drug trafficking.”
RSPO certified soap
In an effort to realize and address different interests, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil was founded (RSPO). The RSPO is a non-profit organization comprised of a multitude of stakeholders that has developed a certification system for “sustainable palm oil.” The WWF holds that the certificate is rewarded for fair working practices, indigenous rights protection, conservation of wildlife on plantations and ban on clearing of primary forests. About 10% of palm oil production worldwide has been certified by the RSPO thus far.

So what can you do? The next time you’re out shopping, keep a look out for RSPO certified products and show your support by making a purchase! RSPO certified products are still difficult to find, but you can still check labels and choose products that don’t contain palm oil at all (we should all be eating far fewer packaged and processed foods anyway!!!). In addition to “palm oil,” look for “Palmitate,” “Palm Kernel” and “Palmitic Acid.”

Go an extra step and sign Greenpeace’s petition calling for Nestle to stop purchasing palm oil from suppliers who contributing to rapid deforestation: www.thepetitionsite.com.