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Palm Oil Action Australia | November 18, 2017

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Palm oil is the planet′s most widely consumed vegetable oil | Global Ideas

  • On October 31, 2017

dw.com
Palm oil is the planet′s most widely consumed vegetable oil | Global Ideas | DW
Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com)
5-7 minutes

Palm oil is found in everything from food to cosmetics. Its rise to the status of the most widely consumed vegetable oil has had devastating effects on forests, wildlife – and most recently some of Hong Kong’s beaches.

The rise of palm oil to become the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet is astounding. In 1970, yearly palm oil production stood at about one million tons. By 2016, that figure had jumped to around 63 million tons.

Made from the reddish fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis), it’s extremely versatile, which is why it has replaced animal and other vegetable oils in many products, according to environmental group WWF. The oil is found in all kinds of products, including lipsticks, ice cream and soaps, and is widely used as a biofuel.

Indonesia, China, the European Union and India are the world’s biggest palm oil consumers. Nearly half of all palm oil produced goes to the latter three, none of which produce the oil and are entirely dependent on imports to meet demand.

Palm oil with a price for the environment

Most of that palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. Rising demand for the cheap product has led to widespread destruction of rainforests, cleared to make way for monoculture plantations. This is threatening ecosystems and the habitats of many animal species, says the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Numbers of Bornean orangutans, for instance, have fallen so sharply that environmental groups fear they will be extinct within a decade. The primates are particularly susceptible to deforestation because they spend 90 percent of their time in trees. And Borneo has lost significant numbers of trees due to logging, one of the biggest drivers of which is palm oil, says WWF.

Between 1973 and 2010, forest cover on the island fell from 76 to 28 percent, writes Scientific American.

A palm oil spill near Hong Kong has also made headlines this week after two vessels collided, spilling about 1000 tons of the stuff into the Pearl River estuary. Dead fish, shells, rocks and rubbish coated in palm oil washed up on beaches that were also covered in stinking clumps of the oil.

Environmentalists fear decaying palm oil could cause an algae bloom, which would compete with fish for oxygen, and could have negative consequences for wildlife in the region.

Sustainable palm oil?
Auswilderungscamps für Orang Utans in Indonesien (picture alliance/dpa)

Sustainable palm oil certifiers say they are seeking to lessen the environmental impact of cultivating the trees on habitats and species like the orangutan

There are attempts to make greener palm oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), for instance, is made up of industry players who have joined forces to set criteria for certified palm oil that minimizes the negative impact of the plant’s cultivation.

Some experts say the criteria are too lax but represent a start. The main problem, they say, is that most palm oil is not certified – around 80 percent worldwide.

Brazil fights illegal logging (Reuters/U. Marcelino)
Fighting illegal logging in the Amazon
Green lungs

Tropical rainforest in the Amazon covers almost twice as much land as India. Three-quarters of it is located in Brazil. These green lungs of the Earth are threatened by illegal logging and mining.
Brazil fights illegal logging (Reuters/U. Marcelino)
Fighting illegal logging in the Amazon
Caught red-handed

Together with the military police, agents of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) hunt for illegal loggers, trying to catch them in action. In this photo, an IBAMA agent is targeting a logging truck.
Brazil fights illegal logging (Reuters/U. Marcelino)
Fighting illegal logging in the Amazon
Direct hit

IBAMA goes head-on against illegal loggers. Whoever is caught feels the iron fist of the authorities – like those above, near the city of Novo Progresso in the state of Pará. The wood was burned on site – together with the trucks.
Brazil fights illegal logging (Reuters/U. Marcelino)
Fighting illegal logging in the Amazon
Dangerous work

The forest protection work carries high risk, as many illegal loggers are armed. In June, a policeman was shot dead.
Brazil fights illegal logging (Reuters/U. Marcelino)
Fighting illegal logging in the Amazon
Hard-won success

In this case, IBAMA agents were successful. But such success is becoming less frequent. The economic crisis has also affected the environmental agency, and its funding has been reduced by about a third over recent years.
Brazil fights illegal logging(Reuters/U. Marcelino)
Fighting illegal logging in the Amazon
Poor equipment

The loss of funding has consequences: “The loggers are better equipped than us,” said Uiratan Barroso, representative of the state of Para. “As long as we lack money for unmarked vehicles and acceptable radios, we cannot carry out our work properly.”
Brazil fights illegal logging (Reuters/U. Marcelino)
Fighting illegal logging in the Amazon
Failures showing

From 2004 and 2012, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon decreased by 80 percent. But over the last four years, it has increased by 35 percent. In 2015, a forest area four times larger than Los Angeles was cleared.
razil fights illegal logging (Reuters/U. Marcelino)
Fighting illegal logging in the Amazon
Support from Germany and Norway

The Brazilian government admits that IBAMA is poorly equipped to carry out its tasks. The Amazon Fund, aimed at raising donations to combat deforestation, will provide 56 million reais (around 15 million euros) to help improve the situation. The money is coming mainly from Germany and Norway.