Of the 11 million hectares of oil palm plantations globally, about 6 million are found in Indonesia. These plantations are quickly pushing out native rainforests and the species associated with them. Chiefly affected is the Orangutan. One of our distant cousins, these intelligent primates are facing increased poaching consequently, pushing them towards becoming critically endangered. Habitat conversion from natural forests to oil palm plantations has devastating impacts on tropical forests, along with the plants, animals, insects, birds and reptiles that depend on them.

Borneo and Sumatra are two of the most bio-diverse regions of the world, yet have the longest list of endangered species – namely, the orangutan. Orangutans exist as two distinct species, the Sumatran Orangutan and the Borneo Orangutan. Scientists currently estimate that fewer than 60,000 orangutans remain in the wild of Borneo and Sumatra. Clear cutting of forests undertaken by the palm oil industry has also facilitated access for hunters and traders. It is the main factor for the dramatic reduction of orangutan populations.

An area the size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour in Indonesia and Malaysia to clear room for the production of a single vegetable oil. This amounts to six football fields being destroyed per minute. Since 1990, the total area of Indonesia covered by palm oil plantations has grown 600 percent.

Palm oil can be found in nearly all products we use. From soaps to lotions to fuels, it is found in nearly half of the products found in grocery stores. The United States is the largest consumer of palm oils, consuming 1.2 million metric tons of the product yearly.

In 2006, after a European Union incentive promoting the use of biofuels for transport, the use of palm oil as a biofuel in the E.U. has increased by 365 percent, making the overall consumption of palm oil 5.6 million metric tons.

The conversion of Indonesia’s rainforests into energy crops is responsible for more carbon pollution each year than all the cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships in the U.S. combined. Indonesia has the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emissions behind only China and the U.S. This is exclusively because of deforestation.

Part of the correlation between orangutan endangerment and palm oil is because both parties favor fertile lowland soils close to rivers. As such, when competition occurs it is usually the latter that comes out successively. To clear land for the building of habitats, often fires are used to destroy vast areas of orangutan habitat. Unfortunately, these slow moving apes frequently burn to death, unable to escape flames. Not only that, but in some areas of Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans are seen as pests and shot by plantation owners or farmers.

Over 50,000 orangutans have already died as a result of deforestation due to palm oil in the last two decades. If this trend is to continue, our furry cousins will be extinct in the wild within three years to 12 years; they will be extinct from the jungle they occupy in 20 years.

There is only a singly chromosome difference between orangutans and humans. They have the ability to reason and think. Chentek, an orangutan at the Atlanta Zoo in the U.S., was taught American Sign Language and acquired a vocabulary of over 500 words. They are vital to the ecosystem in South-East Asia. Orangutans cannot live without the rainforest, and the rainforest cannot live without orangutans.

Chloe Nevitt
Feature Writer

Sources: WWF, Alternet, Karenstan, Say No to Palm Oil
Photo: Ecoteer Responsible Travel

Sustainably Grown Palm Oil: The Future of Fast Food?
What’s better than deep-fried dough covered in sugar? Turns out, Dunkin Donuts has an answer: sugarcoated, deep-fried dough that doesn’t destroy the rain forest.

Palm oil has become a key ingredient in many processed food products, including fast food and as many as 50 percent of foods sold in grocery stores. Palm oil has surged in popularity over the last few years not because of its taste or nutritional value, but because of the consumer backlash against trans fats, which are known to contribute to the development of a number of diseases. Because palm oil is solid at room temperature, food manufacturers use it in products like Oreos that require a soft yet thick texture.

The replacement of traditional solid fat sources with palm oil has had unintended consequences. Palm oil is made from the pulp of the fruit of oil palm trees, which grow mainly in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Brazil. The top two palm oil-producing countries are Indonesia and Malaysia, where thousands of acres of rain forest have been cut down and replaced with oil palm plantations.

While the production and exportation of palm oil has supported the economies of these countries, the extensive deforestation and habitat destruction associated with its production will have only negative long-term consequences. Greenhouse gas emissions have increased dramatically in Indonesia due to the carbon released as a byproduct of deforestation. One unique population of orangutans that lives only in Aceh, Indonesia is nearing extinction due to fires raging through the expanses of palm oil plantations next to its rain forest habitat.

Local communities of people who depend on forest resources for their livelihoods have fought to end the destruction, but little has been done on a global scale to stop it.

That is, until now. Dunkin Donuts has announced its intention to use only sustainably grown palm oil in making its donuts. While it remains to be seen exactly what changes the popular food chain will make in order to source sustainably grown palm oil, the decision is certainly a step in the right direction.

As long as the global market has access to unsustainably produced palm oil, food corporations will continue to purchase it and use it in products, contributing further to environmental destruction. Consumers must stand up to protect the rainforest and those who depend on it by purchasing only those products made with sustainably grown palm oil.

– Kat Henrichs

Sources: NPR, Rainforest Action Network
Photo: Wikipedia