Palm oil is the most ubiquitous edible oil on the planet. It is found in products ranging from soap, cosmetics, and cleaning products to candles, chocolate, and ice cream, and it is also used to make biofuel.
While palm oil can be defined as vegan because it contains no animal substances, the industry that produces it is by no means cruelty free.
Most palm oil production directly or indirectly harms animals. Wildlife habitat is destroyed to make way for oil palms, and animals who stray onto plantations in search of food are shot or poisoned. Deforestation makes wildlife more vulnerable to poaching.
Only a small percentage of all the palm oil on the global market is produced with zero deforestation and no violations of human rights. The term “conflict palm oil” is often used to differentiate oil that is produced at the expense of wildlife and the environment, and in a process that involves human rights violations and worker exploitation, from that produced in a responsible, sustainable manner.
There are thousands of names for palm oil and its derivatives, such as stearic acid, cetyl alcohol, and glyceryl stearate, so it is very difficult for consumers who don’t have access to a reliable certification trademark to know whether a product contains palm oil or not. Palm oil derivatives can even be present in products that are wrongly labelled as palm oil free.
Most of the land used for oil palm cultivation was originally rainforest that was home to diverse species of wildlife, many of them endangered. Much of it had already been deforested for rubber and coconut plantations before being repurposed for growing oil palms.
Southeast Asia is the region where the most wildlife habitat has been lost to palm oil production, but conservationists are also battling to protect forest from being cleared by producers in other parts of the world.
Deforestation’s toll on wildlife in Borneo and Sumatra
Orangutans and elephants are two of the animals most affected by the destruction of their habitat for oil palm cultivation, and by the human-wildlife conflict that results.
Other species, including the Sumatran tiger, elephants, rhinos, sun bears, slow lorises, pangolins, various species of monkey, and many birds, insects, and reptiles, are all also hugely impacted by the clearing of forest for oil palms.
In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed the classification of the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) from endangered to critically endangered, citing the main causes of its population decline as habitat loss and fragmentation, primarily for logging and oil palm plantations, along with illegal hunting and fires.
According to a United Nations report published in 2015, more than 80 percent of the remaining orangutan habitat on Borneo could be lost by the year 2080 if the island’s current land-use policies remain intact.
The report states that the massive conversion of Borneo’s forests for agricultural development – primarily oil palm plantations – will leave orangutans fragmented and facing extinction in several areas.
The Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) is also listed as critically endangered.
A new species of orangutan – the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) – was identified recently in Sumatra, but it is already being described as one of the most endangered great ape species in the world. Fewer than eight hundred of the primates remain and they are surviving in 1,100 square kilometres of remaining habitat, which is divided into three blocks of forest, separated by roads and agricultural land.
Oil palm cultivation has had an extremely damaging effect on the biodiversity of Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem, which is the last place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants can be found living together in the wild.
Panut Hadisiswoyo, who is the director of the Orangutan Information Centre, based in Medan, Sumatra, says that orangutans go to oil palm plantations in search of food. “They are looking for the forests that used to be there.”
He says rescuers often have to cut bullets out of the orangutans. “People shoot them to protect crops, to kill a mother in order to capture her baby to sell, or just for sport.”
A Bornean orangutan died in December last year after being discovered on an oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, with more than forty shotgun pellets in her body. Both of the primate’s legs and arms were broken and she was severely malnourished.
One of the orangutans being cared for at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme’s quarantine centre – a male named Leuser – was shot at least 62 times with an air rifle and was blinded by the pellets that lodged in his eyes.
It is very tragic, Hadisiswoyo says, to see orangutans in life-threatening situations because their homes have been replaced by oil palm plantations.
“Stopping the expansion of oil palm cultivation is the only way to secure a better future for orangutans and the local ecosystem.”
The headline photo was taken in the PT Bumi Sawit Sejahtera oil palm concession in Ketapang, West Kalimantan.
This is an extract from an article I wrote for the Animal People Forum. The full article covers the destruction being caused by palm oil production not only in Southeast Asia, but also in Africa and Latin America. Along with a Palm Oil Facts and Figures section, there is also a comprehensive list of things you can do to help combat the devastation caused by conflict palm oil, starting by reconsidering your own shopping and consumption habits.
Support independent journalism that digs deep.
All the content on this website currently remains available to be read for free, but you can donate or take out a paid subscription using the Paypal or GoCardless buttons on the top right-hand side of this and other pages.
Changing Times brings you a unique and panoramic perspective on issues rarely covered elsewhere. Just $5, 5 euro or £5 a month from each of my readers will ensure its sustainability.