Environmental impact of palm-oil

Palm-oil and Orangutans

Palm-oil and Orangutans. What they have in common you may ask? 

Since a couple of years I am trying to only buy conventional palm-oil free products. And I am not only refusing it because of health reasons, but also because of environmental issues. And it’s not very easy to refuse palm-oil, because it is in just so many products (I listed a few palm oil free soaps in the shop)

But I will stop writing now and my friend Deà Starlling (Wildlife biologist and conservation photographer) will continue:

Let’s talk about palm-oil

Would you be surprised if I told you that chocolate, pizza, lipstick, laundry soap, and at least 50% of all the products you use on a daily basis have something in common? They all contain a controversial ingredient causing enormous damage to the environment – palm oil. ​

Why is palm-oil so popular?

It’s a vegetable oil extracted from the palm tree’s fruit. It has a neutral taste and a high melting point, making it perfect for cooking and baking. Additionally, its creamy and fat texture makes it ideal for many cosmetic products, such as lipsticks, shampoos, moisturizers, and many more. 

As it happens, it’s also the cheapest vegetable oil in the world. According to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO in short), palm oil plantations need less than half of the land required by other crops, such as rapeseed, canola or soy, to produce the same amount of oil.

Having so many sought-after properties and reasonably low cost of acquisition, it quickly became an easy choice for a number of industries, and with perfectly warm and humid weather, Indonesia and Malaysia became its biggest producers, satisfying about 85% of the global demand.

The problem with palm-oil mass production

With its popularity continuously growing, more and more land was required for new plantations, which, unsurprisingly, lead to a substantial negative impact on the environment, such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change and animal cruelty. 

​There even have been cases of modern day slavery, human trafficking, forced labor and torture. Vulnerable people are smuggled to Indonesia and Malaysia in barbaric conditions, with a promise of a better life, yet arriving at nothing more but prison-like labor camps. Those who try to escape are beaten and severely punished. 

If that was not bad enough, these countries are the only places where we can find wild orangutans. This sudden and violent industrialization of the land has driven these glorious animals right to the brink of extinction. Due to the deforestation, they keep losing their habitats and are forced to look for food elsewhere, often ending up on farms. 

They feed on the young palm trees, causing considerable damage to the plantations. It is not exactly nutrient-rich food for these gentle primates but with no other option they can snack on palm trees for days. You can imagine what often happens next… Farmers kill the animals to protect the trees and their own income. In the end, it always comes down to money. 

All in all, orangutans are now classified by the IUCN – The Red List of Threatened Species – as critically endangered species and unless we do something, they will be extinct in 50 years. 
If you ask me, this is reason enough to join the fight against this, clearly commercialized, mass murder. Unless we all take a stand, this horror will not stop. ​

Photo Credit: Dea Starlling

Is there something like sustainable palm-oil?

Now it’s important to note that simply banning palm oil is just not sustainable, as other crops would likely cause even more damage to the environment.
As bad as this industry is, there are some people out there doing it right, respecting the environment and life around them. We should support them and educate everyone else. Let’s not forget that this industry guarantees livelihood to less privileged communities in rural parts of both Indonesia and Malaysia  – according to RSOP, stopping the production of palm oil altogether would create significant problems for many families in these regions.

But, how do we know whom to trust?
It’s a tricky question, considering that wherever big money is involved, all rules can be twisted and broken, and people’s opinion can be bought. That’s why the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm oil was created – a non-profit organization that implemented global standards for the production of sustainable palm oil.
It unites all willing farms under a collection of criteria which, once respected and met, result in a certification of sustainability.

Some of these requirements include:

  • not destroying primary forests and places with a high rate of biodiversity,
  • respecting conservation areas and inhabited lands,
  • treating employees fairly and not condoning slavery.

Basic human decency I would say.

Following these simple and obvious rules, people can earn their living planting palm trees, causing much less negative impact on the environment.

If we don’t start fighting for the sustainability of the palm oil production, the tropical rainforest will be destroyed entirely and with it all the animals inhabiting this fantastic rich and complex ecosystem. And while I’m not asking you to become marching activists (although that would be super cool!), next time you have to buy a product containing palm oil, please remember to check whether it’s labeled and certified as sustainable.

By shopping intelligently you are helping many communities and families, as well as the entire rainforest and its biodiversity.

Dea wrote this blog post:

Deá Starlling

I am a biologist and wildlife photographer from Brazil

During my biology studies and for a few, following years, I worked with wild and marine animals rehabilitation. Although being able to help and make a difference was very gratifying, it also left a mark—seeing so disturbing numbers of animals suffering and death caused by human activities, such as ingestion of plastic, habitat loss, illegal trafficking, and many more, was genuinely traumatic. It was when I realized the true power of photography. Now I use my social media to help raise awareness and I hope we can protect our planet together!

You can follow Deá’s journey on  Instagram and her website: deastarlling.com

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