Each year, Western citizens consume approximately 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of palm oil, often without knowing it. Each year, the orangutan population worldwide decreases in frightening amounts. Palm oil deforestation and the population loss for the already endangered orangutans is a startling cause-and-effect in the environment.

Photo courtesy of Kjersti Joergensen via Shutterstock
Photo courtesy of Kjersti Joergensen via Shutterstock

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil, pressed from oil palm trees, is native to Western Africa but currently flourishes throughout Africa, Asia, North America and South America. Approximately 85% of all palm oil is produced in and exported from Malaysia and Indonesia.

It is estimated that one-third of all vegetable oil is palm oil. This is due to the relatively low production costs as well its low amount of trans fat, which is found in hydrogenated oils and may increase heart disease.

Palm oil is found in nearly 50% of all packaged products under several different names. It’s used in lipstick to hold the color and prevent melting, pizza dough to enhance texture, in instant noodles to pre-cook them so you don’t have to, as a conditioning agent in shampoo, in baked goods and chocolate to create a smooth texture, and can also be used to produce biofuel and biodiesel.

Unfortunately, the increase in palm oil has also led to an increase of unsustainable deforestation in many countries.

The Effects Of Palm Oil Deforestation

According to the World Wildlife Fund, approximately 90% of all oil palm trees are grown on the islands of Malaysia and Indonesia. These islands host some of the most biodiverse rainforests on the planet and are home to endangered species such as the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger.

Unfortunately, the clearing of land for palm oil plantations is having a wide range of negative effects on the local communities and environments. The United Nations Environment Program has declared palm oil the main driver of deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia. According to Say No to Palm Oil, an area the size of 300 football fields is cleared each hour for a new palm oil plantation.

Photo Courtesy of mrfiza via Shutterstock
Photo Courtesy of mrfiza via Shutterstock

As a result, communities and animals are finding themselves displaced. Endangered species such as the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and sunbear are finding themselves more accessible to poachers and smugglers.

Orangutans in particular are suffering due to palm oil deforestation. An estimated 50,000 orangutans have died due to palm oil deforestation in the past 20 years with approximately 6-12 being killed each day. Many die during deforestation as a result of being crushed by logs and machinery. Others, however, die at the hands of poachers. The owners of many plantations considered orangutans to be a pest and offer a reward to those able to kill the animal.

With orangutans losing 80% of their natural habitat in the past 20 years, scientists estimate that the species could be extinct in the wild in as little as 25 years, if the destruction of their habitat due to palm oil plantations is not stopped.

The Future Of Sustainable Palm Oil

Fortunately, efforts are being taken to turn palm oil into a sustainable crop. In 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed as a non-profit to bring together stakeholders from all sides of the palm oil sector. Of the approximately 550 members, one-third represent consumer good manufacturers while 17% represent producers of oil.

Brands such as Walmart and Nestle are creating pressure for sustainably certified palm oil under the Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) certification. In 2011, 10% of all palm oil was CSPO certified.

Regrettably, the conflicting interests of members of the RSPO slow progress. Very little change has been made in the past 10 years as the RSPO still allows the clearing of the bio-rich peatlands and secondary forests.

Photo courtesy of tristan tan via Shutterstock
Photo courtesy of tristan tan via Shutterstock

Get Involved

  • Learn more about palm oil and orangutans on sites like Say No to Palm Oil, Orangutan.com and World Wildlife Fund.
  • Rethink your pantry and cosmetic bag. Take a few minutes to learn about which products contain palm oil and find sustainable options instead. This list is a great place to start.
  • Join Rainforest Action Network’s campaign to encourage PepsiCo to stop using unsustainable palm oil in their products.
  • Donate to The Orangutan Project which supports the rescue and rehabilitation of orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra.

By Sky Fisher

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Sky Fisher

Sky Fisher is a small-town country girl with a passion for travel. She has a love affair with Central America and currently calls Costa Rica home. Follow her adventures at Sky vs World.

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