Palm oil comes from the fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis) and is the most widely produced edible oil. A mature oil palm tree produces reddish colored fruit with a single seed or kernel. The fruits are about the size of a plum and grow in large bunches weighing up to 100 lbs. Oil palm trees can mature and produce fruit in as little as seven years and mature trees can produce for more than 30 years, yielding more oil per hectare than any major oilseed crop. The palm fruit yields two distinct oils -- palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil, which is high in saturated fats and rich in carotene, is extracted from the pulp of the fruit and is used in food. Palm kernel oil is extracted from the seed of the fruit and is used in the products like soaps and cosmetics.
Palm oil is used for food products, detergents, personal care products and -- increasingly -- biofuel. Palm oil and its derivatives are present in 50% of all packaged foods on our store shelves. You probably eat and use palm oil every day. On many product labels, palm oil can also be called palm kernel oil, palmitate and palmitic acid. Foods often containing palm oil include: snack foods, margarines and fats, dry mixes for cakes, biscuits, etc., baked goods of all types, peanut butter, sauces, powdered milk, condensed milk and non-dairy products such as coffee creamer, ice-cream, candies and chocolate . Palm oil is often used as frying oil because it can resist high temperatures and does not produce unpleasant odors. Palm kernel oil is used in the production of concentrated foods and as a supplement in animal feeds and pet foods. Palm and palm kernel oil are also found in many non-food items such as soaps, detergents, candles, and cosmetics.
The oil palm tree is native to West Africa, where it was traditionally cultivated in a sustainable way as a subsistence crop for food, fiber and medicine. Oil palms do well wherever heat and rainfall are abundant, and today they can be found in tropical regions all over the world. Oil palm trees have thrived following their introduction to Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and oil palm plantations have become the fastest-growing monoculture (the cultivation or growth of a single crop) plantations in the tropics. Oil palms are an introduced agricultural crop, not part of the rain forest plant communities in these areas.
Malaysia and Indonesia account for over half of the world's total oil palm plantation area (more than 12 million hectares), and 85% of the global production of palm oil. More than 33 million metric tons are produced in Indonesia and Malaysia per year. In Southeast Asia, the establishment of palm oil plantations is a major driver of deforestation, which is occurring at an alarming rate. As cultivation continues to expand there are dramatic consequences for biodiversity.
Global production of palm oil has doubled over the last decade and worldwide demand is expected to double again by 2020. A 2007 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report acknowledges that palm oil plantations are now the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia. New plantations are being developed and existing ones are continuously being expanded there and in other Asian countries. It is estimated that the equivalent of 300 football fields are deforested every hour. Indonesia faces the highest rate of rain forest loss in the world, with a deforestation rate of about 4.9 million acres of rain forest each year. This is equal to approximately 7,644 square miles -- or an area slightly larger than the size of New Jersey.
When large areas of tropical forests are cleared to make room for vast monoculture oil palm plantations, critical wildlife habitat is destroyed. The creation and expansion of unsustainable palm oil plantations also means indiscriminate forest clearing, poor air quality and release of CO2 from burning forests and peatlands. Deforestation can release large volumes of greenhouse gases, particularly in tropical forests growing on peat soils. Unfortunately, large-scale unsustainable palm oil production often goes hand in hand with disregard for the rights, livelihoods and interests of local people and communities, as well.
There are currently over 7 million acres of cleared land available for palm oil plantations in Borneo and Sumatra. Many corporations, however, choose to cut down healthy rainforest instead of using already cleared land for plantains. They gain added profits from the timber, and as logging operations they are often able to ignore the regulations that sustainable plantations abide by. Sadly, forests do not need to be cleared for palm oil plantations. There is approximately 300-700 million hectares of abandoned land globally that could potentially be used for oil palm plantations, with 20 million hectares in Indonesia alone.
Large-scale conversion of tropical forests to oil palm plantations has a devastating impact on biodiversity and endangers a huge number of plant and animal species. What is at risk is the loss of critical habitat that is home to some of the world's most amazing biodiversity. Borneo, for example, is home to 13 primate species, approximately 400 bird species, 150 reptile and amphibian species, 3,000 species of trees, and 15,000 species of flowering plants. Sumatra is home to more than 500 bird species and more than 200 mammal species, including the critically endangered Sumatran tiger and rhino.
Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo are some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, and because they are also the areas where oil palm plantations are expanding, wildlife like tigers, leopards, elephants, rhinos, orangutans, tapir, sun bears are at increased risk. The palm oil crisis is pushing endangered animals like the Sumatran and Bornean orangutan, Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros and the critically endangered Bornean elephant even closer to extinction. Some of these species, such as rhinoceros and tiger, simply can't live in the types of disturbed areas that are created in oil palm plantations. Others, like elephants and orangutans, can make some use of the degraded habitat -- but they are considered pests that eat oil palm fronds and seeds and are often killed. After logging rainforest habitat, palm oil companies often use uncontrolled burning to clear the land. Fires that are set to clear forests for oil palm plantations are particularly devastating to slow-moving animals like orangutans that may not be able to escape. Poaching of orangutans for the illegal pet trade is also more prevalent in cleared areas and surrounding oil palm plantations.
Human activity, including the growth of the palm oil industry, is directly related to the dramatic reduction of orangutan populations. During 1998 and 1999, it was estimated that orangutans were being lost at a rate of about 1,000 per year and that 80% of orangutan habitat had been already been altered or lost. Today the wild population of Bornean orangutans is estimated at 45,000 (down from an estimated 300,000 in 1990), and there are fewer than 7,300 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild. Borneo and Sumatra are the only places in the world where wild orangutans exist. Many believe that at the current rate of deforestation and oil palm expansion, orangutans could be extinct in the wild in as little as 20 years if no action is taken. There is hope, but we all must work together to be part of the solution.
The clearing of rainforest for oil palm plantations has tremendous negative effects on habitats and biodiversity. With better management practices and biodiversity conservation in mind however, palm oil can provide benefits without the high costs to natural ecosystems.
Sustainable palm oil
If strict criteria are applied to all stages of palm oil production and manufacture, oil palm plantations can be managed in a sustainable way. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a large, international group of palm oil producers, buyers, and environmental and other groups working to define, implement and promote better practices for sustainable palm oil production. Membership in the RSPO demonstrates that a producer company has pledged to become sustainable in the near future.
One effort of the RSPO is to encourage companies to use certified sustainable palm oil in the products that they make and sell. Working at both the producer and consumer level can eliminate incentives for palm oil produced at the expense of natural habitats, and replace them with incentives to produce certified sustainable palm oil.
The way palm oil is grown and produced is the key. Certified Sustainable Palm Oil is palm oil that has been produced by a plantation that has been managed and certified by the RSPO. This means that the plantation was established on land that was not recently deforested and has been well-managed with good environmental, social and economic standards. RSPO-certified plantations have been visited by independent auditors who have established that practices follow the RSPO's principles and criteria for sustainability. The RSPO strongly encourages all of its members, both producers and users of palm oil, to fully switch to RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil as soon as possible. At this point there are no regulations on palm oil labeling from RSPO or other agencies.
If palm oil is not certified sustainable, consumers can't be sure whether or not the palm oil has harmed the environment, native wildlife, or violated the rights of indigenous people.
Habitat protection and reforestation
In order to truly reduce the impact of the oil palm industry on biodiversity, sustainable palm oil must go hand in hand with efforts to protect intact and repair degraded habitat as much as possible. A major problem facing many of these habitats affected by unsustainable palm oil production is fragmentation. When habitats are cleared and broken into smaller and smaller pieces the impacts on biodiversity in the area is dramatic. In order to help address this, some conservationists and groups, like the Malua BioBank, are working to strategically rehabilitate and preserve key forest areas. These areas serve as buffer zones around plantations or lands cleared for development and also function as protected forest corridors to connect areas of isolated forest habitat.
In addition to supporting the RSPO and raising awareness about the palm oil crisis, how it affects orangutans and what people can do to help, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and the Cleveland Zoological Society are actively working to address the palm oil issue in Malaysia through support of the HUTAN Kinabatangan Orang-Utan Conservation Project (KOCP) in Sabah, Malaysia.
The Kinabatangan Orang-Utan Conservation Project (KOCP) was established in 1998 by the Non-government Organization HUTAN created by Drs. Marc Ancrenaz and Isabelle Lackman-Ancrenaz in collaboration with the Sabah Wildlife Department. The project's objective is to achieve long-term viability of orangutan populations in Sabah by fostering harmonious relationships between people and the orangutan, which in turn will support local socio-economic development compatible with habitat and wildlife conservation.
The KOCP studies and protects important secondary forest habitat, and by investigating the effects of habitat degradation and fragmentation they shed light on how orangutans cope with changes in their natural habitat. This insight makes it possible to focus on finding realistic solutions to enhance the long-term survival of orangutan and other wildlife in the area. In addition, this work has provided important tools for orangutan conservation and persuaded the regional government to create a protected area called The Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.
One of the most important elements of KOCP is that local communities are involved in research, protection of the forests and measures to prevent illegal activities. KOCP has successful public awareness, capacity-building, conservation education, and human-wildlife conflict programs. These efforts contribute directly to local social and economic development by involving local communities in the conservation of the sanctuary and providing alternative ways for local people to derive tangible benefits from the preservation of local natural resources.
In the past five years, KOCP has been heavily engaged in the palm oil issue in Malaysia, and has been instrumental in bringing together multiple governmental and non-governmental conservation agencies and private companies, opening up dialogue and creating a forum to address the complex issues related to palm oil development in the region and its effects on local people, habitat and wildlife. View a Malaysian newspaper article about the palm oil crisis in Malaysia and KOCP.
The "Orang-Utan Conservation Colloquium -- Developing Models for Orang-Utan Conservation Within Fragmented Ecosystems," initiated by KOCP was held in Sabah in 2009 to bring the palm oil industry and conservationists together to address how they could work to address the environmental issues surrounding palm oil, including working to promote the production of certified sustainable palm oil, connecting existing patches of remaining orangutan habitat and setting aside critical areas as natural corridors. Read an interview with Dr. Marc Ancrenaz about the palm oil crisis and the Orang-Utan Conservation Colloquium.
Be a responsible wood and paper consumer
Ask for and purchase FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood and lumber products. Use recycled household and office paper products (paper towels, bathroom tissue, notebooks, stationary, printer paper, etc.). Recycle paper and cardboard.
BE AN ADVOCATE
Write to your favorite restaurants and companies.
Let them know that you care about orangutans and the environment. Tell them that you are aware of the palm oil crisis and that your concern is reflected by the products and services you are willing to purchase. If they are already members of the RSPO, thank them; if they are not, ask them to join and make a commitment to sustainable palm oil. (Sample letter: PDF | Word document)
Promote better labeling.
Encourage RSPO companies to label their products with an "Orangutan Friendly" label, and ask them to indicate what % of the palm oil in their products is certified sustainable. (Sample letter: PDF | Word document)
Write to your local legislators and The President.
Ask them not to explore palm oil as a possible biofuel option. Cutting down rainforests to grow palm oil for fuel is not a "green" substitute for gasoline. (Sample letter: PDF | Word document)
Support active conservation efforts
Partner with the Cleveland Zoological Society to support the efforts of the Kinabatangan Orang-Utan Conservation Project (See section above: "What is the Zoo is doing?") and Malau Bio Bank. Come to the Zoo. Use the donation station in The RainForest and choose KOCP as the project you would like to support. Contact us to find out more.
Go see wild orangutans
Your tourist dollars make the rainforests more valuable to keep intact than to destroy for oil palm plantations. Contact us for information about responsible ecotourism opportunities in Malaysia.
Get involved today. We can all make a difference for wild orangutans!
Many thanks to Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Project
and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo for images and other resources.