Every year deliberately lit fires rage across Indonesia. They destroy pristine rainforest, endanger orangutans and contribute to climate change. A young carbon trading entrepreneur goes in search of a solution.
One of the most significant players in Indonesia’s struggle with deforestation is palm oil. In a developing country with a population of 200 million, the palm oil industry is a keystone of the economy, representing the livelihood of millions of Indonesians.
Derived from the fruit of the West African oil palm, palm oil is forecast to be the world’s most produced, consumed and internationally traded edible oil by 2012. The oil is attractive to food producers because it is solid at room temperature and can therefore easily be used as shortening in baked goods (which makes them tender and flaky). In the USA, it is most commonly used in commercially processed foods, but elsewhere it is widely used as a household cooking oil, and is often labelled simply as ‘vegetable oil’. As an ingredient, it’s most commonly found in baked products, cookies, chips, candy bars, frosting, peanut butter, sauces, ice cream, margarine, coffee whiteners, peanut butter, canned creamy soups, trail mix, snack foods and microwaveable meals. Palm oil’s chemical uses include lipstick, soap, makeup remover, body lotion, sun cream and other cosmetics. It’s also used in industry as a mineral oil substitute for producing lubricants.
Also derived from the fruit is palm kernel oil (used in foods, but with a different fatty acid content to regular palm oil) and palm kernel meal, (used widely in animal feeds). The breakdown of the fruit’s yield is about 82% palm oil, 10% palm kernel meal, and 8% palm kernel oil.
The palm oil industry is expected to grow exponentially in coming years due to two factors: firstly, the US government now requires that food labels list the product’s trans-fat content. Trans-fats, which come from hydrogenated vegetable oil, are a major cause of heart disease, and so now many manufacturers are switching to other oils. Palm oil is a popular choice.
Secondly, palm oil offers a price advantage relative to other vegetable oils, which makes it attractive to the burgeoning biofuels market. Alternative fuel is a huge growth industry - particularly in the European Union, which is now one of the world’s leading importers of palm oil, almost exclusively on the basis of its use in biofuels.
In Indonesia’s fertile ecosystem, oil palms grow quickly and well. Because of this, they are ideal as a crop for degraded or previously farmed land. However, due to basic financial imperatives, vast industrial plantations are often grown on newly-cleared rainforest land or peat swamp forest. Since the 1970s, Indonesia’s total area planted with palm oil has increased 30-fold to over 13,000 square kilometres (12,000 square miles).
The consequent destruction of enormous tracts of rainforest has contributed to Indonesia’s featuring role on the IUCN red list of endangered species. Along with logging and fires, palm oil plantations are devouring the habitat for threatened species by destroying the forest, blocking travel corridors and hampering migrations. The plantations and their access roads fragment the forest and encourage encroaching settlements. This brings animals and humans into conflict: the crossover between ‘development’ and ‘forest’ facilitates poaching and hunting, and the animals may stray into plantations and worker-villages where they are persecuted as nuisances.
Many palm oil producers - both small and industrial - clear land using fire, which has devastating consequences for the forest and the biosphere at large. Aside from the air pollution, the fires often burn out of control and destroy much larger areas than anticipated. Then, since the forest has already been destroyed by accident, there’s an opportunity for developers to ‘step in’ and farm the ruined areas.
By 2020, the demand for palm oil is forecast to double. To satisfy the demand, new plantations of 3,000 square kilometres (1,160 square miles) will have to be established annually. The environmental consequences are likely to be devastating.
There is a way for palm oil and the forest to coexist with less conflict: a sustainable approach to the plantations. Some palm oil producers have taken steps toward reducing the environmental and sociocultural problems associated with their industry. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, comprising the Worldwide Fund for Nature and several major industry stakeholders, first met in Malaysia in 2003. The goal of the RSPO is to develop and implement improved standards of practise, especially with regard to environmental performance. They are also trying to establish a reliable certification system to label sustainably produced oil. Both the RSPO palm oil producers and environmental defenders hope that a voluntary, self-regulating, functional system can be implemented.