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Palm Oil - The Good, Bad and the Ugly

Francesca Gallone is a Regional Programme Manager for Outlook Expeditions, supporting our northern schools throughout the expedition programme. A passionate environmentalist and avid traveller, Francesca takes a keen interest in topics that affect our natural world – particularly in destinations that our teams travel to. Here she writes about her research into the palm oil industry.

Rightly or wrongly so, palm oil was something I knew very little about prior to this year. However, with charities and even mainstream supermarkets launching hard-hitting awareness campaigns about the plight of the endangered orangutans, it seems people everywhere are calling for action to be taken against destructive cultivation methods and are even boycotting products containing palm oil altogether.

Of course, seeing harrowing images of wildlife in distress is shocking, and I want to do something to help; but I wanted to make sure I knew the facts before I got behind any movement to ban it all together. After some lengthy research and falling into many-a rabbit hole of one-sided opinions, I still don’t have all the facts, nor do I have a clear-cut solution. What I have found is a worrying gap in the general public’s knowledge, having potentially been misled by some retailers and organisations who have presented a less than rounded picture of the palm oil industry. Inciting anger and a ‘bandwagon’ culture in this way, could have an even more devastating effect on the animals, people and the environment.

Despite being unaware of it until recent years, palm oil is nothing new. In fact, there are records of it being used in 3000 BC. Today, the oil is the most consumed vegetable oil on the planet and is the preferred choice for over half of everyday products found on supermarket shelves – from soaps and cosmetics, to ice cream and crisps.

Whilst plantations have been around for many years, the palm oil boom really came to the forefront in the mid-2000s, when environmental laws were drafted by the US government encouraging the use of vegetable oils in fuels to reduce carbon dioxide levels and curb global warming. By accelerating the destruction of Borneo’s rainforests, the intended solution to the carbon problem soon became an even greater cause, contributing to the largest increase in carbon emissions in 2,000 years – the destroyed forests produced more carbon than the whole of Europe combined.

The habitat and biodiversity loss in places such as Borneo is staggering and it's said over a third of wild orangutans are being threatened by the fires used to clear their homes and make way for new plantations.

And it’s not just the animals that are displaced as a result of palm oil cultivation, indigenous people are denied access to their land and essential resources including food, water and medicines. Further to this, local people suffer under a harmful haze caused by forest fires. Dubbed ‘a crime against humanity’ by the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency, the toxic bi-product pollutes the air, water and soil making survival virtually impossible.

There are constant conflicts between local governments, smallholders and huge corporations over land ownership, which often results in families no longer being able to live self-sufficiently, forcing them to become dependent on big companies and live at the mercy of crop failures and oil price fluctuations.

This is the devastating picture we’ve become used to associating with the industry – and rightly so – however, making a positive change to the current situation is not as simple as just saying no to palm oil all together.

The reason palm oil is so widely used, is because it’s incredibly efficient and requires far less land (as much as ten times less) to produce an equivalent yield of other oil types. Practically, this means that if we were to boycott products containing palm oil, manufacturers would need to find an alternative in order to stay in production. One suggested alternative is soybean oil however, if worldwide projections for oil demand are correct, in 2020, 42 million hectares of land would be needed compared to the 6.3 million hectares required for the same amount of palm oil. So, it’s not about ridding our lives of palm oil only for the problem to transfer to another type of commodity, it’s first about getting palm oil right.

It’s probably a good time to say that you can’t necessarily tar all palm oil with the same destructive brush. There are organisations working to ensure palm oil is harvested in a sustainable way in accordance to the guidelines set out by the Rainforest Alliance Certified Palm Oil (RSPO). To earn the certification of the RSPO, several criteria are assessed:

1. Biodiversity conservation / protection of endangered species

2. Natural resource conservation

3. Setting aside a portion of land as forest reserve

4. Providing workers with decent wages and protecting their ability to organize

5. Following guidelines that determine how, when, and where timber/non-timber forest products are harvested

All RSPO plantations are audited annually to help prevent deforestation, protect natural resources and deliver benefits to local people. The sad reality is however, that there are many illegal, unsustainable palm oil plantations in operation, with the RSPO suggesting just last year that only around 21% of all palm oil harvested is in fact certified and sustainable. There are also questions around the criteria needed to become an RSPO accredited source of palm oil and the various loopholes some plantations seem to work their way around – so this is my no means a water-tight solution as of yet.

In Malaysia, the palm oil industry provides direct employment for over half a million people, with the WWF previously crediting the industry for being the fastest way to alleviate poverty. However, there is controversy around employment as big companies often enlist the help of foreign workers or those with experience in the industry, causing yet more rifts with indigenous people.

The bottom line is, that the palm oil industry and its impact on animals, communities and the environment is horrific. Whilst there may be a glimmer of a silver lining for some when it comes to sustainable sources, jobs and alleviation in poverty, I can’t confidently say that there is a ‘good side’ to the industry just yet.

As I sit here in my comfy, secure, western life, safe from uncertainty, the fear of toxic haze, and the destruction of my home by huge corporate companies, I ask myself, “what can I do to help?” The first thing that comes to mind are the people who are fighting and living through this every single day and have been for many years – long before chain supermarkets and campaign groups decided it was time to start talking about it. It’s not about making ourselves feel better by boycotting big brands or vowing to give up cornflakes, it’s about supporting the people and wildlife on the front line of the crisis.

Whilst Borneo may have the perfect climate for palm oil production, it also has huge potential to become an eco-tourism mecca. Impressive mountains, stunning beaches, forests, rivers and caves, it’s no wonder the country has such an abundance of wildlife. By following in the footsteps of other countries previously reliant on the export of crops, Borneo is harnessing its natural beauty and native resources to bring more tourists to the area.

Take Costa Rica, regularly hailed as an example of best practice when it comes to environmental leadership and sustainability, not only did investment in eco-tourism significantly reduce unemployment statistics, it’s resulted in a third of the country’s natural land being marked for conservation – one of the highest proportions in the world.

An Olive Ridley Turtle - taken at one of several wildlife conservation projects we work with in Costa Rica.

There are numerous organisations working hard on-the ground to create eco-lodges, animal sanctuaries and protecting the biodiversity of the country some of which our teams are contributing to during their expeditions. So, whether you are able to help in-country, or support with donations from home, you’ll be driving real-change for the people and wildlife who need it most.

Unfortunately, I can’t round this piece off with a nice, neat conclusion and a one-size-fits all answer to the palm oil problem. One thing’s for sure, it’s not something that’s going to just go away. As long as society needs the products palm oil helps to create, these issues will exist so it’s key that more organisations become certified and ensure they are operating in a sustainable way. While boycotting products may not be the answer, customer demand will force brands to act, so only purchasing palm oil products from RSPO certified organisations is a good starting point.

Some would argue however, that palm oil isn’t the problem, the huge demand for cheap consumables is. So, it’s wise to look at what you consume versus what you need – consuming less, not buying unnecessary products, and making simple swaps to palm-oil free alternatives wherever possible, thus reducing the industry’s need to expand.

With every article, paper and research document I find, there is another to totally contradict what’s gone before it. The truth of the matter is, that we can do our bit but change really has to come from the top with government enforced legislation and some serious changes from multi-national corporations. There is plenty you can do to do your bit, so before you make any decisions to boycott palm oil products, do your research and consider the alternatives to give yourself the best chance of making a conscious, well-rounded decision.

To learn more about Borneo and Costa Rica visit our Destination pages where you can download itineraries and read about the conservation projects we work with in country.

Written by
Francesca Gallone