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There are 4 major threats caused by the non sustainable palm oil industry: Destruction of natural ecosystems, habitat loss leading to wildlife displacement, climate change and human rights violations. Read on to find out more:

Destruction of Natural Ecosystems

Palm oil is a major threat to the Earths rainforests, and has caused a huge decline in biodiversity at an alarming rate, as many species are now on the brink of extinction as a result of palm oil production.

As global palm oil demand increases it is expected that new plantations will be needed to match future levels of consumption. Indonesia and Malaysia are the biggest palm oil producers in the world currently, particularly on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra where approximately 90% of palm oil production takes place.

The palm oil industry dominates these two Islands, and the effects on wildlife and ecosystems are more than detrimental.  The region faces higher deforestation rates than any other tropical location in the world, and this is expected to lead to a decay of 42% in biodiversity by the year 2100.

Indonesia lost 6 Million hectares (Mha) of old-growth and selectively logged natural forests between 2000 and 2012, while Borneo, with a 73.7 Mha of landmass lost at least 5.4Mha to planted oil-palm by 2015, although some studies indicate that these clearance rates may have been higher.

Wildlife displacement and loss of habitat:

As forests are destroyed using ‘slash and burn’ techniques various species are killed in the process or die of starvation after their natural habitat is lost.

Human-wildlife conflict often increases following the establishment of plantations, as displaced species may wonder through areas where forests used to be. Several animals including but not limited to over 50% of orangutans are found outside of protected national parks due to these high deforestation rates.

Orangutan numbers have plummeted dramatically since 1999, as approximately 150,000 have been lost, through direct hunting or because they wonder through villages or palm oil plantations where they are perceived as a threat or nuisance. Stats from the IUCN estimate that 1250 are killed every year, and there now may be as little as 70,000 left in Borneo, which is staggering considering that there was as many as 200,000 two decades ago.  

Other animals are also under serious threat due to natural habitat loss. The Pygmy elephants often feed off natural grasses and vegetation but because so much of their natural habitat has been destroyed they will sometimes eat palm fruit from palm oil plantations. Even though they are the smallest elephant they still consume up to 140 kilograms of the fruit daily. This makes them a pest for farmers and they are often fed fruits, which has been known to kill entire herds of the elephant. There are now approximately 1500 pygmy elephants left in the world.

For the orangutan, the pygmy elephant, as well as other animals such as the Sumatran tiger, sun bears, and many other threatened species there is now an urgent need for these animals to be protected. Many of these majestic creatures are endemic to Indonesia and loss of this biodiversity could wreck havoc on the ecosystems within the forest in this region. To save them from extinction, sustainable management of palm oil plantations is essential both right now, and in the future.

Climate Change

Forests are one of the world’s biggest carbon sinks. Trees capture and store CO2, which means they are great at decreasing the effects of global warming, as they naturally absorb atmospheric greenhouse gases. However, when forests are cleared or burned, this has the opposite effect. Carbon is released into the atmosphere, and there is then less land where CO2 sequestration can occur. Tropical deforestation accounts for 15% of total global warming pollution yearly, which is more than all cars, trucks, ships and planes combined.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, the release of carbon into the atmosphere is exasperated even more so, through the draining and burning of peatlands.

Peatlands are made up of dead and decaying plant material and organic matter. These swamps absorb huge levels of greenhouse gases over hundreds of years, which makes them one of the biggest carbon sinks in the world. However, when they are drained and burned to make room for palm oil plantations, huge quantities of greenhouse gases are released back into the atmosphere. Peatland fires can continue for months on end, and the burning of these habitats alone, makes Indonesia one of the biggest CO2 polluters in the world. When peatlands are set alight emissions are released into the atmosphere at a rate 2000 times higher than the burning of diesel.

In 1997, peatland burning in Indonesia, resulted in more emissions being released into the atmosphere, than the entire annual emissions released by the United States in that same year.  As a result of this palm oil driven economy, Indonesia is now one of the top 10 greenhouse gas emitting countries.

Human Rights Violations

Forced labour is common place within the palm oil industry. As forests are cleared, and palm oil companies buy or bully their way onto new land, villagers who no longer have access to the forest, are frequently forced to work at palm oil plantations.

Here are some examples from Ecuador and Sumatra  (follow the links)

Workers can be underpaid, and may even be unable to buy food on their low wages. As children in the industry are not official workers, plantation owners can get away with paying them nothing, and families may struggle to even buy the most basic food suppliers when working on palm oil plantations.

Labourers also face threats to their health due to the widespread use of paraquat. This chemical is incredibly toxic, and is banned in the EU. But plantations in Indonesia still use this dangerous agrochemical on a regular basis as it an extremely useful pesticide. However this puts workers at risk, as well as birds and animals that may wonder through palm oil plantations in search of food.