Palm oil — that nearly ubiquitous ingredient found in processed foods, hygiene products and cosmetics — fuels air and water pollution, climate change, extinction and human rights violations. A multi-billion-dollar industry, “big palm” has the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia, where around 80% of the world’s palm oil is produced, in its pocket. This means there has been little enforcement of laws that protect the environment and people from a destructive sector that is both incredibly powerful and poorly regulated.
I’ve ranted about palm oil and crony capitalism in the past and offered tips on how to avoid unsustainable palm products, but this is an ongoing crisis with new developments that demand our attention. Orangutans are going extinct, the continued survival of Sumatran elephants and tigers is threatened, indigenous people are being pushed off their land and pollution from land-clearing forest fires periodically causes hazardous air quality levels in places like Singapore. And then there is climate change. Massive deforestation and peatland CO2 emissions from the palm oil industry are driving what many scientists believe to be the major environmental and humanitarian crisis of our times.
A new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) explains how corruption and a lack of law enforcement are facilitating rampant illegal deforestation in Indonesia. The report, titled, “Permitting Crime: How Palm Oil Expansion Drives Illegal Logging in Indonesia” explores how regulations on palm oil cultivation, such as the granting of licenses, are routinely ignored in the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan, resulting in the wanton destruction of some of the country’s richest and most biodiverse rainforest land. Crimes include government buyouts and police bribes by palm oil firms, as well as local governments transferring millions of dollars in resources from local communities to private companies.
From the report:
The unprecedented growth of plantations has been characterised by illegality. Successive attempts to bring some semblance of order to land acquisition practices and deforestation have been undermined by a combination of corruption and incompetence, resulting in the exploitation of forest dwellers and driving rates of deforestation to the highest in the world.
While we hope such reports will affect change on governmental, consumer and corporate levels, sometimes such facts and figures as detailed in the report fail to touch the hearts of those who feel removed from what is essentially happening half a world away. Therefore, stories such as what happened to one female orangutan earlier this month might serve to shock and sicken some of us into caring and perhaps even acting on the palm oil issue. The female orangutan was found on a palm plantation owned by Makin Group in Central Kalimantan and taken in by the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation. She was starving, all of her limbs were broken and over 40 shotgun pellets were found in her body. Unsurprisingly, the orangutan did not survive.
Despite the fact that orangutans are protected by Indonesian law, such events are widespread.
From the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation:
The BOS Foundation already has a long list of orangutans they have rescued from various oil palm plantations owned by Makin Group. Until the time this news was released, the total number of orangutans rescued from Makin Group plantations is 166. A total of 100 individuals have been successfully translocated into protected forests in the surrounding areas. Nineteen individuals eventually died including this last victim. While 47 are still being cared for by BOS Foundation in Nyaru Menteng, 44 of which are releasable and awaiting their turn to return to the wild, and 3 will not be able to be released and must remain in Nyaru Menteng for the rest of their lives.
We hope that Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, puts “peat before palm oil” and that multinationals like Unilever and Cargill “green their palm oil chain”, but forgive us if we are skeptical of actions within a system that places profit over people, the present over the future and treats nature as a disposable commodity to be used and abused without consequence.