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What is palm oil?

The oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis) is a native to West Africa and was imported into South-East Asia in the mid 19th century. Oil palm is a cheap, highly productive crop grown in the tropics, mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia who combined produce approximately 87% of the world’s supply. This relatively small green belt, 10 degrees north and south of the equator, is home to 50% of the earth’s biodiversity.

How is palm oil used?

Palm Oil is used in approximately 50% of products consumers purchase and use daily. Palm oil and its derivatives can be found in food, drinks, cosmetics, cleaning products, fuels, hair care, soaps, personal care and household items such as candles.  In the UK, palm oil has to be listed if it’s a main ingredient in food, but it’s hidden in other products in food, such as emulsifiers and under 200+ different names in non-consumables. Previously petrochemicals and animal fats were used, so replacing these options with palm oil was thought to be an ethical choice at the time.

There are a number of reasons the food industry uses palm oil, the main one being that it is the cheapest of vegetable oils.  Cooking oil is one of the areas where price cuts can be made to allow for improved profit margin.

Palm oil is a very bland cooking oil, so it does not affect the taste of products.  Palm oil also increases shelf life of pre-packaged food and finally, palm oil has a very high smoke point so it is perfect for rapid frying products such as 2 minute noodles etc.

Personal care and cleaning products use palm oil for different reasons. Palm oil is extremely versatile  due to its high fatty acid content which is required to manufacture emulsifiers and surfactants.

Palm Oil is also used to manufacture bio fuel and had become what was called the ‘green’ fuel option for Motor Vehicles, shipping and Aircraft fuel. However, on the 13thMarch 2019, after years of controversy and delay, the European Commission refuted this, concluding that the cultivation of palm oil, mostly undertaken in Indonesia and Malaysia, results in excessive deforestation, and should therefore not be eligible to count toward EU renewable transport targets for national governments.

What's the issue with palm oil production?

Indonesia is being deforested faster than any other country in the world for agriculture such as palm oil, and rubber plantations, as well as logging and mining. 

Large areas of tropical forests and other ecosystems with high conservation values have been cleared to make room for oil palm plantations, essentially killing the biodiversity of the ecosystems that they replace.  Many plantations in Southeast Asia are on peat soils, which until recently were covered by peat swamp forests. The drainage of these carbon-rich organic soils for plantations is causing massive greenhouse gas emissions.

The cheapest and fastest way to clear land for plantations is the slash and burn process. Fires in Indonesia produce some of the world’s worst pollution, sending suffocating smog to cities hundreds of miles away in Malaysia and Singapore. The fires also decimate the wildlife popualtions that can't escape the flames in time, and put local villages at risk. 

Clearing rainforest to make way for plantations has taken a heavy toll on local communities, destroyed natural habitats for endangered species, and become a critical factor in climate change. Replacing natural forests with palm oil plantations vastly reduces the ability of vegetation to capture and store carbon dioxide. It’s estimated that deforestation contributes up to 20 percent of global warming.

Indonesia and Malaysia account for around 85% of global palm oil production and the demand for the cheap oil continues to grow.

According to the World Wildlife Fund there are approximately 20 million hectares of abandoned land in Indonesia that could be used for palm oil plantations, however, many palm oil companies are tied in with logging firms.  Timber is extremely valuable, therefore clearing virgin forest they get money twice, once for the timber and again for the produce from the oil palm trees.

Other issues surrounding unregulated palm production are human rights issues, slash and burn practices to clear land, illegal land grabs, child labour and leakage of chemicals into water supply.

How do palm oil plantations create wildlife conflicts?

Forests are cleared by either heavy machinery or fire. Orangutans are left starving with no food source, trapped in pockets of isolated areas with no way out and often wander onto plantations searching for food. The orangutans are considered a pest by many of the oil palm companies as they often destroy young palm plants eating the new shoots. They are run over by excavation equipment, captured, tortured, beaten, shot with air guns or slaughtered.  Infant orangutans have monetary value and are often kept as pets or illegally smuggled, the only way a mother will let go of her infant is if she has been killed. Approximately 100,000 orangutans have been killed in just the past 17 years, and they are now classed as critically endangered by IUCN.

In addition to Orangutans many other species are affected by oil palm plantations.  Due to habitat loss and lack of food, elephants wander onto plantations and into villages and destroy crops. Human, elephant conflict is becoming more as habitat is cleared for oil palm.  Plantations and local villages often poison the elephants and snare traps are also set in the forests near the areas they are encroaching. Tusks of the elephants are often removed to give the impression to authorities that the deaths were due to ivory trade rather than land encroachment. 

Tiger, Rhino and Pangolin numbers are so low due to habitat loss and poaching that their extinction is also rapidly nearing. 

A map showing the historical deforesation in Indonesia and a projection for 2020. Photo credit World Wildlife Fund

What can you do to help?

Your voice, your choices, and your help are more powerful than you know. 

Your voice: Tell companies whose products are tied to conflict palm oil to clean up their act, speak up and share the message that if things continue as they are at present, orangutans face extinction and that is unthinkable.

You can also talk with your local MP's and other government officials expressing your concerns about palm oil and requesting more policy action on this issue. 

Your choices: We make a statement every time we make a purchase about what we support. Palm oil production is driven by demand, so by reducing that demand we reduce the impact. By simply choosing products that don't contain palm oil you can make a positive impact for Orangutans, and all the other species that rely on the rainforest. 

When palm oil is in a product the manufacturer generally lists it as such, but sadly too often it can be hidden under a different name or ingredient. To help here is a quick cheat sheet of some of the most used alternate names for palm oil.

Your help: Our mission to restore both orangutan populations and their habitat is a monumental task, but one we must win to ensure the biodiversity in Borneo is protected for generations to come. We can't do this alone, so we need volunteers to help us in our work. If you are interested in volunteering please contact us at enquiry@bos-uk.org.

Posted: 22nd Mar 2019

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