16 December 2002
Every year, we use 20 million tons of oil. We use it to wash our
hair, soap our bodies, clean the floor; it's in candles, cream,
cosmetics and cakes – and most of us have no idea it's there. Palm oil,
usually labelled vegetable oil, occasionally olein, is a booming
industry. A report published this month by WWF has, however, identified
a downside to this "green" oil. WWF says that vast tracts
of oil palm "monocultures" are causing increasingly serious
problems for both local people and the environment, destroying
huge swathes of rainforest and threatening some endangered animals.
oil comes from the tree's fruit, both the outer flesh and the inner
kernel. Oil palms produce higher yields per hectare than any
other oil-seed crop and are second only to soybean oil in the world's
total production of vegetable oils.
More than 6.5 million hectares worldwide are planted with this
miraculous palm. In Indonesia, the world's second largest oil palm
a million hectares a year are being converted to oil palm plantations.
As the global demand for palm oil will reach 40 million tons by
2020, new countries are keen to join in large-scale oil production.
oil palm is indigenous to west Africa and interwoven with the continent's
cultural traditions. The oil is used for cooking, lighting
candles, burning, and as an ointment. The fermented sap is drunk
as palm wine; the leaves become brooms, matting, roofs. Cakes of
palm rind, left after the oil has been pressed, are fodder for
cattle – even
the dead tree trunks become home to bumble-bee larvae, a delicacy
in parts of Cameroon.
Today, oil palms are clones, planted in vast
monocultures where rainforest stood. Studies in Malaysia and Indonesia
that 80 to 100
per cent of the species that inhabited the tropical rainforest
cannot survive in oil palm plantations. The few species that persist
pests since they no longer have access to their usual food source,
and have no remaining predators.
Richard Perkins, an agriculture
expert at WWF and a member of Unilever's Sustainable Agriculture
Advisory Board, says that one of the problems
is that oil palm plantations restrict the migration of large, endangered
animals such as the rhino, orang-utans and elephants. He is working
with industry to try to ensure that companies plant palms on areas
that are not of high conservation value. "As soon as you bite
into forests you lose species, but we direct companies to plant
in areas that are less damaging. There is going to be some loss,
by working together we could minimise that," he says.
the chief executive of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association, says: "This
is not a problem for us because we are not expanding into the jungle.
We own 1.3 million hectares of rubber plantations,
which we are converting into oil palm plantations." Chandran
believes the problem countries are Indonesia and Papua New Guinea,
as they eat into virgin rainforest.
According to the Environmental
Investigation Agency, oil palm plantation companies were responsible
for 80 per cent of the forest fires
in Indonesia from 1997-8. The latest figures from WWF indicate
Indonesia has lost an area the size of the Netherlands to forest
fires, and that burning of pristine rainforest continues today.
Centre for International Forestry Research estimates that palm
oil is now the commodity that has the greatest impact on forest
cover in Indonesia. Papua New Guinea has 75 per cent of its original
intact, but as the seventh largest palm oil producer in the world,
and the third largest exporter, this will change. Its forests are
home to 200 species of mammals, 200,000 types of plants, and indigenous
peoples. The government plans to turn 3,000 hectares of forest
into oil palm plantations.
Oil palm monocultures gives rise to soil
erosion as the forest clearance leaves soil bare and exposed to
sedimentation of the waterways, affecting drinking water and fish.
Effluent from oil processing affects water quality; for every ton
of oil processed, 2.5 tons of waste are released into waterways.
According to Ricardo Carrere, Uruguay's representative of the World
Rainforest Movement, and editor of The Bitter Fruit of Oil Palm,
few companies adhere to laws regulating pollution: land contaminated
by effluent is not fit for agriculture, and it can find its way
into the sea. As one Malaysian oil palm worker told Carrere: "Logging
companies destroy our forest and leave. Plantation companies destroy
our forest and stay."
The cultivation of oil palms can result
in indigenous peoples losing their land. The Dayaks of Kalimantan
are seeing their way of life
destroyed by plantations as they are driven from their land by
force. Dayaks from the village of Lempunah near Samarinda were
offered lump sums to exchange their land for shares in an oil palm
plantation. When they refused, it was alleged that their village
was burnt to the ground after fires were started by men on behalf
of oil palm companies. Their crops destroyed, the people had little
choice but to cede their land.
Governments overwhelmed by foreign debt see palm oil as a cash
cow. But the money does not trickle down, for plantations are generally
owned by large companies and supported by organisations such as
World Bank. "Governments seem to have learnt nothing from
experiences with 'miracle' crops. The falling prices of coffee,
cacao, and bananas
have a simple explanation – the widespread promotion of a
certain crop in as many countries as possible. The result is competition
between and within countries, but the burden is carried by local
workers," adds Carrere.
But the news is not all bad. "Malaysia
is shot to bits," says
Perkins, "but there is still a lot to play for in Indonesia."
Even so, Unilever is establishing a sustainable palm oil plantation
in Malaysia under the auspices of their local company, Pamol. Liquid
effluent from the processing plant is used as water and fertilizer
for trees; plants that fix nitrogen and fertilise the soil are
grown between trees; insects and owls are encouraged to keep down
and hillsides are left as forest, decreasing erosion and providing
a wildlife refuge.
"We want to use our influence to make palm oil plantations
more sustainable," says
Trevor Gavin, a spokesperson for Unilever. "We've been collaborating
with the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, and we want to extend our plans
to Indonesia." As Unilever accepts, only a handful of big
companies are involved in the industry. To get them to change will
be a struggle.
"WWF doesn't want the consumer to boycott palm oil because
it would damage co-operation with producer interests in the countries
to work with," says Perkins. "Consumers should speak
to the supermarket and ask how their palm oil is produced. Investors
could ask their bank if funds are used to finance the destruction
of high conservation value areas. It's a call to awareness, not
Another problem is genetically modified palms. Malaysia
is creating GM oil palms to produce "the kind of oil, flavour,
and scent the detergent and cooking-oil manufacturers, the chocolate
the beauty industry, the perfume designers and salad makers want," says
Chandran. Palm oil contains 40 per cent saturated fat and scientists
are developing a palm with higher levels of unsaturated fats. He
adds: "Because they are tree crops, it'll be 15 years before
we plant the first transgenic [GM] palm."
The world's most
healthy palm oil: good for our hearts, perhaps less so for our
Further information: www.wrm.org.uy/plantations/material/oilpalm.html