Understand the Palm Oil Crisis

Palm oil is in just about every type of consumer product. The oil palm plant is grown commercially in rainforests primarily in Borneo and Sumatra, home to tigers, sun bears, elephants and orangutans. Tragically, the industry poses a threat to these and other species, as much of it uses deforestation practices that greatly threaten these animals’ delicate habitat. As Palm oil is used so widely in everyday products, it is important that we, as consumers, support sustainable means of growing it to help protect the wildlife that co-exists that suffers from this deforestation.

You may be asking yourself, “What exactly is Palm oil?”

Palm oil is a form of edible vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the African oil palm tree, and is the most widely produced edible oil. Palm oil is found in roughly 50% of packaged goods sold in US or European grocery stores. Palm oil and its derivatives are used in a remarkable array of products, such as soaps, hair products, cosmetics, ice cream, cookies, crackers, chocolate products, cereals, breakfast bars, cake mixes, doughnuts, potato chips, instant noodles, frozen sweets and meals, baby formula, margarine, and dry and canned soups.

The Conservation Issue:

Rainforest/Habitat Destruction
Nearly 90% percent of palm oil is grown in the tropical countries of Indonesia and Malaysia, where palm oil plantations under active cultivation cover 16 million acres. The Indonesian government has announced plans to convert approximately 44 million more acres of rainforests into palm oil plantations by 2020. The UN’s Environment Program (UNEP) indicates, “98% of Indonesia’s forest may be destroyed by 2022, the lowland forest much sooner.”

In the U.S. alone, palm oil imports have jumped 485% in the last decade. The dramatic and growing demand for this crop in recent decades has pushed sprawling palm oil plantations deep into some of the world’s most valuable rainforests and palm oil production is now one of the leading causes of rainforest destruction around the globe.

Threat to Wildlife
The rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra are the last stand for one of humankind’s closest relatives, the orangutan. Orangutans face an extreme risk of extinction within our lifetime. Between 2004-08, the Sumatran orangutan population fell by 14% to 6,600, largely due to loss of habitat for palm oil expansion. The Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, Asian Elephant, Sun Bear, gibbons and other wildlife are also urgently threatened by palm oil expansion.

Impacts on Local People Native people often lose their land and livelihoods to large palm-oil companies. Most of the money from non-sustainably produced palm oil does not trickle down to local people. Many industrial palm oil plantations also rely on the use of forced and child labor. In Malaysia and Indonesia, child labor has been documented and allegations of modern-day slavery on plantations across Malaysia are common.

The Solution:

Responsible Palm Oil Consumers are often misled by “RSPO certified” or “Green Palm” labels. These labels from the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) still allows “certified sustainable” Palm oil producers to destroy rainforests and carbon-rich peatlands. Companies that produce, trade and use Palm oil must go beyond these inadequate RSPO standards to be truly responsible. Responsible Palm oil is produced without contributing to rainforest or peatland destruction, species extinction, greenhouse gas emissions or human rights abuses. Food manufacturing companies need transparent and traceable supply chains from the plantation where the Palm oil was sourced to the final product on your grocery store shelf.

Outreach and education: The practice of the unregulated Palm oil industry must be made known to all; together we can change the future of destruction caused by unsustainably farmed Palm oil. Avoid products made with unsustainable Palm oil and implore companies and government to make changes in their practices and regulations. See our “How You Can Help” section below for more information.

Oakland Zoo's Role:

Outreach and education: Through our hosted eco-trips to Borneo and by using our public platform available to us as Oakland Zoo, we help get the word out about the plight of wildlife impacted by the unregulated Palm oil practices and educate people on how to avoid supporting unsustainable Palm oil in their everyday lives.

On site help for Wildlife affected by the Palm oil crisis: Oakland Zoo partners with non-profit conservation organizations in Southeast Asia, such as the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre that cares for and rehabilitates Sun Bears displaced by the deforestation of unsustainable Palm oil plantations.

Expertise in the field: Oakland Zoo’s own Maria Trenary, Senior Veterinary Technician, travelled to Malaysia to provide hands-on assistance in moving and providing medical care to the Sun Bears currently affected by the Palm oil crisis at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Oakland Zoo’s Conservation Expeditions to Borneo include four days of skilled volunteering in whatever capacity is needed by the BSBCC at that time.

How You Can Help:

  • Purchase items that do not use palm oil or that use sustainable palm oil only.
  • Support companies that have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) by using this Palm Oil Shopping Guide or by downloading the Palm Oil Shopping Guide for iPhones and Android smartphones. You can also download this cool Palm Oil Fact Sheet for kids too.
  • Use your power as a consumer: Write to your favorite restaurants and companies. Let them know that you care about orangutans, sun bears, gibbons and their rainforest home, and that your concern is reflected in products you are willing to buy. Ask them to join the RSPO if they haven’t done so already. We have a sample letter you can use for your convenience.
  • Go see wild orangutans, sun bears, gibbons. Your tourist dollars make the rainforests worth more standing than cut down for plantations. Check out Hutan Project and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.
  • Write to your local legislators and the President. Ask them not to explore palm oil as a biofuel option. Cutting down rainforests to grow palm oil is not a “green” substitute for gasoline.
  • Write to Indonesian and Malaysian government officials. Ask them to preserve their precious natural resources. They are the only countries in the world that have wild orangutans!
  • Get involved in organizations that are purchasing land for conservation in affected areas.

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