For anyone worried about what GMOs are doing to our agricultural system and how Monsanto is patenting plants across the planet, there’s another dangerous devil on the horizon. Plantation palm oil has been around for years, but its evils largely go unnoticed by the average consumer.
If you’ve not gotten the dirty details on palm oil yet, then buckle up for a bumpy ride we all need to take. Because the palm oil industry is not only endangering Palawan Philippines (named the Best Island in the World in 2014 by Conde Nast Traveler readers), but the health of our entire planet.
READ MORE: Top 10 Things to Do in Coron, Palawan
Palm Oil & Deforestation
Like GMO corn and soy, palm oil is produced on a massive scale of an estimated 50 million tons a year (about 30% of all vegetable oil), and has oozed its way into almost everything we use.
It’s found in roughly half of all household products in the US, from shampoo and cleaning solutions to food. In other words, if something about the way that palm oil is produced is harmful to the environment, then we as a society have a major problem on our hands.
Palm oil comes from oil palms, a tree native to West Africa, but which thrives in any hot, wet tropical climate. Nowadays, the trees are grown in Asia, Africa and the Americas, but over three-quarters of the planet’s palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. While these countries are small compared to some world powers, the negative impact palm oil plantations are having there is immense.
The industry’s effects are most devastating on the rainforests. Because many of these biodiverse ecosystems are not protected (or not protected well), they’re increasingly falling prey to palm oil producers. As a result, there is massive deforestation, many of the planet’s most unique animals are being put on critical watch lists, and indigenous populations are being displaced and exploited.
How Palm Oil Negatively Affects Trees, Animals & People
According to WWF, palm oil plantations have caused the loss of over 3.5 million hectares (or 8 million acres) of vital forest in Indonesia, Borneo and Papua New Guinea in the last 20 years alone.
Not only is this a horrible detriment to the natural world, but the planetary damage continues in the escalation of climate-warming gasses that are expelled during the slash-and-burn deforestation process. This means a huge loss of oxygen provided by those trees and other plant life, which is then replaced by the carbon they’ve been storing in the form of smoke.
Of course, that doesn’t even address what this habitat destruction means to the animals who live in those rainforests.
Many of us have seen heart-wrenching photos of orangutans injured by palm oil deforestation. But let’s not forget the other endangered species we’re losing, including Javan rhinos, Sumatran tigers, Sun Bears, Clouded Leopards and Sumatran elephants.
When a rainforest is slashed and burned, these animals are left without habitat or food, and often become victims of poachers or farmers trying to protect their crops. Some of these species are now projected to be extinct within a decade.
If losing precious wildlife species isn’t enough to cause concern, then how about people? Palm oil plantations are ruining the forest in which many indigenous cultures have lived for centuries. In the process, they’re depriving these people of the food sources upon which they’ve historically relied.
Some people have been forcibly removed from their homes to make way for palm oil plantations. Others, left without options, become plantation workers.
To add insult to injury, according to Rainforest Rescue, the land of those who live near palm oil plantations suffers from soil and water pollution and is left unprotected by the destruction of forests, which are instrumental in preventing mudslides and floods.
Sustaining Trendy Ideas with Empty Promises
Since the press has caught wind of what’s going on with palm oil, efforts are being made to subdue people’s concern. Major companies have taken to using comforting buzzwords like “sustainable” and “organic” on their product lists, if they even use the term palm oil at all (it’s often listed simply as vegetable oil).
Whatever their intentions (cough… PROFIT at all costs… cough), the fact of the matter is that sustainable palm oil production just isn’t happening.
The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), which awards responsibly managed companies with the “certified sustainable” label, seems to have taken a cue from the organic food industry and learned to cut corners, reportedly giving certification to unworthy sources.
The snail’s pace of affecting truly sustainable change is allowing for more and more of the same old, same old to continue. And once an old-growth forest is felled, it takes 100 years for it be replaced.
One big reason for the continued increase in unsustainable palm oil production is consumer apathy. With customers seemingly unwilling to give up their favorite snacks, companies are in no real hurry to alter production methods. Unfortunately, most consumers of these products are likely unaware (or misinformed) about the devastating consequences that come along with palm oil production.
The Palm Oil Plague Hits Palawan Philippines
Despite this abundance of troubling information, the demand for palm oil continues to defy logic, with the industry expecting to grow exponentially in the coming decade.
It’s already the most widely produced vegetable oil in the world, and its inclusion on the ingredient list for candy bars, soap, biofuel, lipstick and more seems to be growing. Consequently, companies are looking for more hot, balmy climates to convert, and Palawan Philippines has come center stage.
The Palawan Man & Biosphere Reserve is now effectively under siege. Over 6,000 hectares of protected land have already been cleared, with plans for 20,000 more to ultimately fall in the name of industry.
This has already caused massive destruction of the Philippines’ “Last Frontier,” endangering the biodiversity, water sources and soil quality. It’s also hindering the local populations’ ability to feed themselves, as the palm oil plantations aren’t even allowing them to intercrop their own annexed land with local food staples like cassava.
The horrible fact is that the Palawan plantations should never have existed in the first place. The whole province was declared a UNESCO Man & Biosphere Reserve in the 1980s.
Now animals are disappearing, and bird populations dropping. The plantations are breaking up the forests, preventing safe and natural passage through them and seriously challenging the interrelated ecosystems. As animals and plants are forced out of their ecological niches, they strain the flora and fauna populations of the remaining jungles.
READ MORE: How to Avoid Products With Palm Oil
What You Can Do To Help
This onslaught of nasty news has undoubtedly got your upper lip twitching, and you’re likely itching to do something about it. Fortunately, you can. It’s important to remember that our choices in supermarkets across the world mean something to the lives of the people, the animals and the forests suffering at the whims of our consumer demands. Hence, we must demand better.
1) Voice Your Outrage- Start by getting yourself on the Rainforest Rescue petition to stop the palm oil rush in Palawan. It takes two minutes to add your name, and it may help to save the livelihoods of thousands of people as well as the lives of millions of plants and animals in the Philippines.
But don’t stop with just one: Look for other petitions focused on preventing palm oil expansion, such as this one addressing Pepsi (which uses nearly half a million tons annually), or this one regarding Herakles Farms’ effort to establish a plantation in the rainforests of Cameroon.
As with GMOs, there are petitions for requiring companies to include honest labeling of products with palm oil. Sign one, sign them all. Share one, share them all. Use your voice!
2) Speak with Your Money- Maybe some pessimism is appropriate here. Maybe these companies and corrupt politicians don’t listen to petitions, protests and peace-loving hippies. But they damn sure listen to dollars, which is why we’re starting to see companies like Nestle, Unilever and Kellogg’s scramble for at least the appearance of a solution.
Boycott palm oil or, if that proves too difficult (since, like GMO corn and soy, it’s hidden in products all over the supermarket), work on lessening your usage. Buy products that are at least going the sustainable route, trying to keep concerned customers happy. An unsightly change in profits will definitely bend the ears of corporate big wigs!
3) Share What You Know- We’re all guilty of sharing crap on the Internet, be it via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. You don’t necessarily need to stop, but why not seek some sort of balance by sharing something important as well? If you care about orangutans, rainforests and the indigenous people of Palawan, then your friends and family are more likely to care as well.
You can share this article (and thanks in advance if you do), but don’t forget to let folks know where they can sign that petition or why you aren’t eating such-and-such anymore. After all, it’s our ability to share information at the grassroots level that prevents the ignorance fostered by corporate-owned mainstream media sources. Sometimes, without realizing it, we color the way our family and friends think.
A Few More Sites to Help Provide Palm Oil Info
In addition to being a wealth of information on this important subject, the following websites offer other ways to involve yourself, such as donating and volunteering, with worthy causes:
We’ve spent decades (not) watching the palm oil industry and ignoring as lackadaisical government policies destroyed rainforests around the world. Now that we are in the know, it’s time to let them see that we do care. –by Jonathon Engels
Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer & teacher who’s been living abroad as an expat since 2005. He’s worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited many others in between. He’s currently on a slow travel trip from Central America to Patagonia, volunteering his way throughout the journey. He’s a regular contributor to One Green Planet as well as Permaculture News, which focus on helping to keep the world green and clean. He’s also the founder of The NGO List, a compilation of grassroots NGOs seeking international volunteers. His work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad, and his current whereabouts and goings-on are available on his personal blog.
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