• Annette Johnson

Palm Oil and Deforestation

My knowledge of palm oil initially came from moments spent in the kitchen as my mother prepared dinner, but a deeper dive into what palm oil is will let you know that it is more than the red, thick, viscous ingredient used for soups eaten throughout West Africa. Despite coming from tropical regions where mangroves can be found, palm oil cultivation and extraction is most commonly associated with Southeast Asia today: Malaysia, Indonesia, Borneo, and Singapore to be exact.


Palm oil plantations have come under fire in recent years, both literally and metaphorically. Palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia have led to massive deforestation across primary and secondary forests, and in instances when palms are slashed and burned, these areas become prone to excessive flooding and fires. A woman who moved to Malaysia in the summer of 2015 shared her experience of intense pollution and smog caused by the fires, noting that as the air quality worsened over the course of three months, causing businesses and schools to close. Given the extent of the problem, a moratorium was placed on issuing clearing permits with the hopes that such action would slow deforestation, but activists today insist that these bureaucratic efforts are purely propaganda. In Indonesia, areas that should be salvaged by the moratorium still find themselves at risk throughout the years.


Palm oil’s popularity can be explained by its ubiquitous nature. It serves as a one size fits all solution to food and fuel across the world, yet its constant presence within our lives seems to be creating a public health problem. Organizations and companies are now in search of alternatives, although to no avail. Companies such as General Mills attempted to experiment with products like Coconut Oil, Mango Kernels, and Shea Butter, but metrics extracted from reports by the World Wide Fund for Nature seemed to indicate that these moves towards sustainability have been lacking. As common as refined palm oil is within soaps, lotions, and foods like peanut butter and margarine, palm oil is also used for livestock feeds and petrol. The conjecture is that as the demand for meat continues to rise, so will the use of palm oil. Similarly, with increased urbanization and a more interconnected world, transit will require more fuel. But what is the alternative in this case? For animals like chicken, scientists suggest insects. And for fields in places like the EU, researchers are beginning to assess the utility and vitality of oils from algae. Research has not indicated significant effectiveness, but we shall see what the future holds.


As industries struggle to find sustainable alternatives, it’s unlikely that palm oil will ever be completely renounced. Take, for example, palm oil cultivation in the southwestern region of Cameroon. Although the Congo Basin has historically been overlooked, the expansion of palm oil plantations is taking place--often under the direction of small scale farmers. In the coming years, countries like Gabon are looking to become leading exporters of palm oil. With such movements, researchers fear that the deforestation witnessed in Asia may also take place in Africa, but context matters.


The Center for International Forestry Research shares the following:


  • In Africa, the palm oil sector (in a large industrial sense) remains in its infancy. With that being said, the levels of deforestation that have taken place in countries like Malaysia are not yet taking place in Cameroon.

  • Palm oil has traditionally played an important role in maintaining food security within Africa, rather than being exploited for large-scale commercial purposes. Because of this, Africans have developed a variety of techniques from extracting the oil from the kernels, thereby creating a supply chain that is much more complex than the one seen in Asia.

  • Because farmers are currently relying on informal techniques on smaller pieces of land, output is significantly lower than what it could be.

  • The signing of the Marrakesh Declaration in 2016 by the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Sierra Leone, the DRC, and the Republic of Congo memorializes their commitment to sustainable palm oil production. It is unclear whether this will yield results similar to Indonesia’s moratoriums, but it does seem to suggest that terms such deforestation and biodiversity are becoming commonplace.


Sources

This post was published by Hillary A.

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