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Palm oil can be found in one in ten supermarket products. Trouble is, demand for it comes at a huge cost: the deforestation of tropical rainforest, and the destruction of the habitat of all the creatures that exist within it. In the first of a three-part
f the situation doesn’t change soon, there’s a really good chance kids born today won’t be able to see orang-utans in the wild”. The statement, made by Auckland Zoo conservation field programmes coordinator, Peter Fraser, is made more poignant given the location of our interview. We’re surrounded by masses of school children running excitedly from enclosure to enclosure, eyes wide as they spot the creatures within.
The situation to which Fraser is referring is palm oil cultivation. In New Zealand palm oil is found in at least one in 10 supermarket products (about 80% is used in the food sector, the rest in industry) and while for many of us it’s a case of blissful ignorance, the reality is by purchasing these products, we’re inadvertently fuelling the mass destruction of virgin rainforests, peatlands and wildlife habitats. In Malaysia and Indonesia, where 85% of palm oil is produced, orang-utans, Sumatran tigers, Asian rhinos, Asian elephants and hundreds of other species are at imminent risk of extinction.
Although palm oil cultivation harks back to as early as 1848, its widespread cultivation and use is recent. Companies have made the switch to palm oil as a cheaper alternative to vegetable oils like soybean and sunflower, which produce a tenth of the oil the palm plant does – all while using more fertiliser, pesticides and water. But Fraser cautions that ‘cheap’ will only ever be the case as long as there’s forest available.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, palm oil plantations are the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia and its 2007 report, The Last Stand of the Orang-utan, suggested as much as 98% of Indonesia’s rainforest could be destroyed by 2022.
Although unforested land is available, companies are choosing rainforest and peat swamp forests because there’s money to be made from selling the felled timber.
The typical life cycle for the oil palm is around 25 years and Fraser says while the soil might be good enough for a second round of planting, beyond that, the land becomes useless. Plantations also sequester less carbon and peatlands in particular act as massive carbon sinks. Their destruction, together with that of the rainforest, puts Indonesia in the position of being one of the largest carbondioxide polluters in the world.
Proponents of the industry argue the plantations create economic benefits for the local community, with one job created for every 2.3 ha. But with that comes land-use infringements and a system that often pits small-scale producers against large transnational oil companies.
“The money generated doesn’t build schools and hospitals – it gets funnelled to a very few rich individuals who control the industry,” comments Fraser.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, palm oil makes up one third of the 151m tonnes of vegetable oil produced worldwide. New Zealanders consume about 20,000 tonnes of it each year.
Here, where the labelling of palm oil and its derivatives isn’t mandatory, information is key, and in 2009 Auckland Zoo released its palm oil-free shopping guide, which is updated each year.
To gauge the urgency of the situation, consider this: From a population of over 30,000 in 1950, the Sumatran orang-utan population now sits at around 6000 because of palm oil cultivation. In Tripa, an area of peat forest in the Aceh Province of the Indonesia Island of Sumatra, less than 13,000 ha of the original 60,000 ha of forest remains, the population of endangered orang-utans dropping from 3,000 to 200. Auckland Zoo’s conservation fund has been actively helping efforts to save these orang-utans.
“By using palm oil produced in such an irresponsible way, we’re essentially borrowing from the future of our kids, because it will cost down the line when yields crash, there’s no more forest, our biodiversity has shrunk and climate change is affecting us,” says Fraser.
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