Palmed off

Palmed off

30 April 2008

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Last week environmental campaigners, dressed up as orang-utans,demonstrated at Unilever offices in several nations against the destruction ofIndonesia’s rainforest for palm oil production. Palm oil is used in a huge rangeof food products, and it is used as a biofuel. Multinationals like Unileverutilise palm oil in their brands, despite the seriousproblems associated with its production.

Palm oil production has grown exponentially in the last two decades; at thesame time the UN millennium ecosystem assessment shows a rapid decline of forestcover in south-east Asia. According to Friends of the Earth, 87% of alldeforestation there between 1985 and 2000 can be attributed to the establishmentof new palm oil estates.

In 2002 Malaysia and Indonesia were together responsible for 84% of theworldwide palm oil production. Virgin tropical rainforests are logged for timberand the subsequent establishment of palm oil estates. As of 2006 over 11 millionhectares of palm plantations had already replaced tropical rain forest.

Not so long ago environmental NGOs promoted the use of biofuels to reduce CO2emissions. Along with environmentalists, European governments put their faith inbiofuels such as palm oil. The principal (though incorrect) belief ofenvironmentalists in the past was plausible; growing plants that absorb CO2,burning their products which releases CO2 and planting new palm trees creates aclosed circle. The “forest” of palm oil trees equates to therainforest it replaces. That’s the theory, but it is not that simple.

In Indonesia over 50% of palm oil concessions are on peat soils. The uniquepeat forest ecosystem is an immense CO2 sink, but that CO2 is released to theatmosphere by decomposition when these forests are logged and the soil drained.The dry peat burns easily. It is a major accidental fire risk and it is also setfire to on purpose to make way for new palm oil estates. Each year the slash-and-burnmethod of preparing land for palm oil production causes a major fire haze insouth-east Asia.

Wetlands International published shocking figures on the emission of CO2 thatresults from draining peat land for palm oil. As it happens, drainage of peatland in Kalimantan, Indonesia, releases 8% of the world’s fossil fuel CO2,making Indonesia the third largest contributor to global warming.

The Dutch government invested hundreds of millions of euros in making powerplants compatible with palm oil. Logging rainforest and establishing palm oilestates has a much greater cost to the climate than any benefit that will everbe gained by utilising biofuels instead of diesel.

The EU is the largest importerof palm oil with the Netherlands the world’s largest single importer. The chainof production and trade is dominated by just a few large multinationals such asUnilever, and invested in by major European banks like HSBC and ING. The EUbiofuels directive states that at least 5.75% of fuel for transport must bebiofuel by 2010. This demand can only be met by importing large amounts offoreign biofuels (for which read palm oil).

The huge island of Borneo, part Malaysian, part Indonesian, is a biodiversityhotspot and its tropical rainforests are the most diverse terrestrial ecosystemsin the world. When converting rainforest to palm oil estate, nearly all animalspecies, including threatened species like elephants, rhinoceroses, tiger andorang-utans, are lost. The ecological value of palm oil plantations is nearlyzero. In practise much more land is cleared for timber than is used for creatingpalm oil estates, and several million hectares of deforested land remainundeveloped.

Each human interference in primary rainforests causes losses in biologicalterms. Of the nearly 80 mammal species that occur in primary rainforests inMalaysia, only 30 are found in secondary (partly-logged) forests and just 11 or12 in oil palm estates.

Of course palm oil is an important contributor to the economic growth andwelfare of Indonesia and Malaysia and a major source of income for ruralcommunities, combating poverty and driving development. Economic growth andprosperity have come at a high price however: unprecedented environmentaldegradation, loss of biodiversity, fires, haze and massive CO2 emissions.

Neither can the social impact be neglected: the forests are the livelihoodsof indigenous communities. Moreover, the practise of acquiring land usuallyviolates land rights and goes hand-in-hand with violence and exploitation.Although the Indonesian government has measures in place that in theory prohibitillegal logging, corruption remains a problem. Large companies violate the lawand get away with it.

The issue of palm oil production raises two important ethical questions.Firstly, is the developed world right in telling a developing country likeIndonesia not to use its natural resources, whether or not this is unsustainableand causes loss of biodiversity? Didn’t European countries and the US, in theprocess of becoming prosperous nations, destroy and pollute most of their ownenvironment?

Secondly, the current problem with global climate warming is caused by CO2emitted by the developed world in the last 150 years. Who are we to denydeveloping countries the right to fulfil their potential for development and inthe course of doing so release greenhouse gases?

Solving this issue pragmatically could involve carbon emission tradingutilising the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Butshould this include peat decomposition due to logging and palm oil production?

If the developed world is truly concerned about the loss of biodiversity, whynot buy or lease rain forest in Malaysia and Indonesia, instead of buying palmoil? That would preserve rainforests from logging whilst also benefiting theclimate and sustaining economic growth in the region. It is all too easy topoint the finger at the Malaysian and Indonesian governments for theirmismanagement, but it is the palm oil and timber demand of the western worldthat drives logging and the expansion of palm oil estates.

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