The great palm off “I

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

Element - - The Cause - By Deirdre Robert

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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