You probably haven’t heard of Elaeis guineensis, but chances are it’s a pretty big part of your life. E.guineenis is commonly known as the African oil palm, which produces palm oil, the world’s most widely consumed vegetable oil. Palm oil, palm kernel oil, and its dozens of pseudonyms are in almost half of all consumer goods¹, from lip stick to peanut butter to bio-diesel. And it’s pervasive for a reason: Palm oil is cheap and efficient, with a far higher yield than other vegetable oils². Global demand for palm oil was over 74 million tons in 2014, and demand is projected to nearly double by 2022³ .
The problem with such rapid growth is that palm oil producers are clearing more and more land for plantations. Because palm oil grows best in tropical conditions, hectares of rainforests are mowed down for palm oil seedlings. Malaysia and Indonesia supply 85% of the world’s palm oil⁴, and subsequent habitat loss and fragmentation threaten the survival of many species, including the Borneo pygmy elephant, orangutans, and Sumatran tigers. And the new palm oil frontier is West and Central Africa⁵ — forest elephant territory.
Africa has a long and complex history with palm oil, and to this day many small farms continue to grow oil palm trees. For centuries indigenous communities have used oil palms to make oil, wine, fertilizer, medicine, and even building materials⁶. These smallholder farms are not the issue (many people argue that they are part of the sustainable palm oil solution); however, when corporations move in and develop industrial-scale plantations, displacing people and animals, and cutting down the rainforest, problems arise. Market-driven, mono-culture palm oil projects are associated with a string of human rights abuses⁶, including slave-labor conditions and land grabbing⁷, wherein governments rent out chunks of land (called concessions⁵) to companies without first gaining consent from or later compensating the people that inhabit or use it.
Furthermore, palm oil plantations have the potential to be extremely destructive to the biodiverse African rainforests. Habitat loss and fragmentation is already a widespread problem for forest elephants, and their future is uncertain under the rule of palm oil. Greenpeace predicts that the spread of palm oil into Africa will cause “large-scale deforestation, climate change, social abuses and the loss of farmland from local communities”⁸. ELP director Peter Wrege has experienced firsthand the tremendous waste palm oil plantations can create. In an interview with Wrege, he discussed abandoned plantations, where huge oil palms lie unused, preventing new rainforest growth and the recovery of native flora and fauna⁹ . On the other hand, swathes of forest are felled for new palm oil seedlings, reducing available habitat. While flying over Cameroon, a forest elephant hotspot, in the fall of 2016 he called the situation “very, very depressing,” because “you look down and it’s all palm oil or bananas, and it all was rainforest.”
There’s not a whole lot of forest left for elephants, and new palm oil plantations threaten the very last of their habitat.
A number of environmental organizations and businesses are also concerned about the dangers of expanding palm oil, prompting the formation of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004, a group connecting non-government organizations (NGO’s) and palm oil growers in order to develop environmentally sustainable and humane production standards and methods. Unfortunately, only 20% of palm oil globally meets RSPO standards¹⁰, and the RSPO’s effectiveness is controversial: many environmentalists have raised concerns about weak monitoring and enforcement along with the lack of protection for secondary, disturbed, and regenerating forests¹⁰ .
Unfortunately, there is little economic incentive to join the RSPO. In an interview¹¹ with The Huffington Post, Tomasz Johnson said legal compliance in the palm oil sector is extremely low, due in part to corruption and weak law enforcement. Because of this regulation issue, Johnson says “it’s very likely that the palm oil [we] consume on a daily basis has been produced illegally. It almost certainly hasn’t been produced sustainably, in any meaningful sense of the word.”
Fortunately, many African governments are taking steps to protect their countries’ land and resources. In 2016, seven nations signed a pledge to protect their tropical rainforests from oil palm conversion and exploitation⁸. These seven countries, comprising 70 percent of Africa’s rainforests, have vowed to uphold “the rights of local communities” and “environmental targets for reduced deforestation and low carbon development,” setting them on the path for sustainable palm oil development¹². However, neither Gabon nor Cameroon have signed this agreement yet, leaving the fate of forest elephants in their rainforests in jeopardy.
While steps are being taken on the industry side of palm oil production, consumers worried about the environmental impact of this ubiquitous oil can look for products made with certified sustainable palm oil, avoid products unnecessarily infused with palm oil, and speak out in support of wildlife.
The situation brings to mind one of my favorite childhood stories, in which a greedy Onceler exploits a forest of Truffula trees to make wonderful thneeds, things that he believes everyone needs. And the Lorax, voice for all the trees and animals, is alone in his protests. Eventually all the Truffula is used up, the animals leave, and the Lorax lifts himself away from the once magnificent wild place, now ruined factory. So learn from this allegory and tell people you care about where your palm oil comes from, because after all: unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
- WWF. “Which Everyday Products Contain Palm Oil?” Accessed April 24, 2017. http://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/which-everyday-products-contain-palm-oil.
- RSPO. “Sustainable Palm Oil.” Accessed April 24, 2017. http://www.rspo.org/about/sustainable-palm-oil.
- “Palm Oil Market Analysis By Derivative (Crude Palm Oil, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Kernel Cake), By Application (Edible Oil, Cosmetics, Bio-diesel, Lubricants, Surfactants) And Segment Forecasts to 2022.” Grand View Research, April, 2016. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/palm-oil-market-to-reach-88-billion-by-2022-grand-view-research-inc-514882361.html
- WWF. “Endangered species threatened by unsustainable palm oil production.” Accessed April 24, 2017. http://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/endangered-species-threatened-by-unsustainable-palm-oil-production
- Kelly, Annie. “Palm oil boom: companies must clean up their act in Africa.” The Guardian, December 2, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/dec/07/palm-oil-africa-deforestation-climate-change-land-rights-private-sector-liberia-cameroon
- Carrere, Ricardo. “Oil palm in Africa: Past, present, and future scenarios.” World Rainforest Movement, December 2010. Updated August 2013. http://wrm.org.uy/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Oil_Palm_in_Africa_2013.pdf
- “For the love of palm oil.” New African Magazine, January 28, 2014. http://newafricanmagazine.com/african-natural-resources-for-the-love-of-palm-oil/
- “Palm oil’s new frontier.” Greenpeace International, September 2012. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/forests/2012/Congo/PalmOilsNewFrontier.pdf
- Peter Wrege, interview by Raina Kamrat, March 27, 2017.
- Varsha Vijay et al. “The Impacts of Oil Palm on Recent Deforestation and Biodiversity Loss.” July 27, 2016. PLOS ONE 11(7), doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0159668. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0159668
- Mosbergen, Dominique. “Palm Oil is in Everything — And it’s Destroying Southeast Asia’s Forests.” The Huffington Post, July 23, 2015. Updated September 9, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/palm-oil-impacts_us_55a4c391e4b0b8145f737dd5
- Gaworecki, Mike. “Seven African countries pledge to protect their tropical forests from unsustainable oil palm development.” Mongabay, November 16, 2016. https://news.mongabay.com/2016/11/seven-african-countries-pledge-to-protect-their-tropical-forests-from-unsustainable-oil-palm-development/
Find out more about the Elephant Listening Project
Conserving the tropical forests of Africa through acoustic monitoring, sound science, and education, focusing on forest elephants