Why Palm Oil is an enviromental and human rights issue

Words : Maile Shanti

It’s no hidden fact that as millennials our parents are really leaving us in the shit. From a plastic island in the middle of the ocean, to the huge decline in species and forestation. Our beautiful planet earth is really heating up. And it’s hard not to feel completely defenceless and helpless after watching a documentary or reading an article about our impact on earth (that’s why we binge watch Sex and the City right?). After taking shorter showers, swapping plastic bags to calico bags and swapping to sustainable fashion, I’m sure that a lot of us can’t help but feel that still isn't enough. What a lot of people don’t realise though, as we concientiously reach for the nuttelex because we read that the dairy industry plays a huge role in climate change, is a common ingredient that can found in almost everything (internally screams). I am talking about palm oil.

Palm oil is responsible for devastating deforestation around the world. From Borneo to Indonesia, North and South America, this oil is responsible for clearing out a hell of a lot of forest even as I write this. One of the biggest problems about this is that all these forests are dense carbon sinks and when they are destroyed they release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In fact, burning of forests to clear land for oil palm plantations in Indonesia alone is the world’s third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.  This is just one of the many problems caused by deforestation, as it also means to death to an old and ancient eco-system and to all of the wildlife that inhabited it, not to mention the abuse of Indigenous peoples and their rights across the globe. An employee of WWF stated in article with One Green Planet that “transporting this type of agriculture to the rainforest creates biological deserts”. And according to the World Wildlife Fund approximately 300 football fields of rainforest are cleared per hour for palm oil plantations, much of which is done illegally. It has now been estimated that we could see the extinction of species such as the orangutan in 5 to 10 years, with already over 90% of natural orangutan habitat being destroyed. According to the Say No To Palm Oil campaign, Sumatran tigers will be gone in less than 3 years thanks to the lethal combination of poachers and deforestation.

Palm oil makes up a large portion of the world's vegetable oil production and is believed to be found in up to 50% of household products (in countries like Australia) from cleaning products to foods. And as if it couldn't get any worse these big businesses are exploiting the rights of local people as well, as the plantations are often developed in poor, rural parts of Sumatra and Borneo. And despite the morbid argument that this industry would bring employment to many people, the Government have already made it clear their main interest is in their economy which allows large corporations to take indigenous land and inhumanely exploit the population. This is just one of the major human rights violations. Other problems include child labour and major loss of land and human life (in some cases entire villages have been bulldozed), facts can be seen here which state that up to 80% of deforestation in Malaysia is undertaken illegally. And if we keep going the rate we are, by 2022, 98% of Malaysian and Indonesian forest will be destroyed, leading to irreparable damage and global warming. So whilst we may not be able to completely cut out the energy we use in our homes or in our car, we definitely can have a huge say in this matter. Which leads me to my next point, Australia needs a huge wake up call. Currently, business don’t need to label palm oil on their products as it falls under the “vegetable oil” bracket, despite its clear impact on global warming, human rights and mass extinction. Campaigns to change the labelling policy are currently being run with no success to date, with the decision being by delayed by the Forum of Food Regulation.

There are ways we can help this situation, contacting representative of your city in Australia is a good place to start, with the Victorian Government already announcing their support of mandatory labelling. Until then, an extensive list of products containing palm oil has been released thanks to the people behind the mandatory labelling campaign. I know, personally, how hard it is to live with minimal impact everyday. Because we’re human and some days it just doesn’t feel like it’s working. However this issue demands immediate attention and changing an item on your shopping list is pretty easy.