Palm Oil is produced from the fruit of the Oil Palm plant which originates from Ghana. As an ingredient it is used widely in processed food, soaps, shampoos and cosmetics. WWF estimates half of all packaged products contain the oil or its derivatives. As a plant, Oil Palm is highly productive, being up to 10 times more productive than any other vegetable oil. This productivity, in combination with its versatility and cheap labour costs make it extremely cheap in comparison to other oils.
In 1970, palm oil production was barely a few million tonnes, by 2010 this had grown exponentially to over 40 million tonnes with 90 percent of global production now occuring in Indonesia and Malaysia. The enormous growth in the industry over such a small space of time resulted in rapid land use changes resulting in the deforesation of previously untouched rainforest to make way for new palm oil plantations. Of the approximately 16 million hectares of palm oil plantations globally, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that half of new plantations have come at the cost of rainforest.
This deforestation is most well known for its impact on wildlife like orangutans, tigers, rhinos, elephants and thousands of other plant and animal species. Scientists estimate the loss of orangutans to be up to 1,000 a year due to deforestation in South East Asia. In the case of the Sumatran Tiger, only 400 remain in the wild and their remaining habitat is rapidly being deforested and fragmented. The survival of these rainforest ecosystems depends on their protection and preservation.
Much of the rainforest that is cleared sits on peat soil, a swampy and very carbon rich soil. When the forest is burnt or cleared the carbon in the peat is released into the atmosphere resulting in carbon emissions of 1.8 billion tonnes per year from Indonesia alone. At the height of the fire ‘seasons’ the smoke spreads across the region, in Singapore the air quality often exceeds the World Health Organisation safe limits.
Deforestation often occurs with little or no consultation with local resident communities resulting in documented cases of indigenous human rights abuses. The worst cases have involved the arrest of local villagers and destruction of their houses so that the forest can be cleared. As deforestation has occurred, land conflicts between communities and companies has also increased.