Taking up nearly 50% of our marketplace, you might have noticed that palm oil is used in baked goods, cosmetics, detergents, shampoo and even biofuel! Essentially an edible vegetable oil derived from an African palm tree known as the oil palm tree, popular belief is that Palm Oil is a useful asset due to its versatility and economic impact. However, recent light has been shed on the adverse effects Palm Oil cultivation has on the environment and consequentially, our health.
The Palm Oil conflict initially rose in Indonesia (the world’s largest palm oil producer) when the Industry cleared away large chunks of rainforest and replaced them with oil palm plantations. While a profitable income – one that offered increased job opportunities – the gradual shrinking of the rainforest has significantly contributed to global warming and the signs of which are already showing.
Surface temperatures in the region have risen- making them more susceptible to wildfires. The destroyed habitats have led the Sumatran Orangutan to be listed as critically endangered. Records also show signs of animal cruelty as Orangutans have been found buried alive or killed by guns and other weapons. It is estimated that should this large scale deforestation continue, we might very well have to say goodbye to the wild Sumatran Orangutan within the next 5-10 years and the Sumatran Tiger in less than 3 years. This industry not only threatens environmental conservation purposes but animal welfare too.
Speaking with Pulse regarding the effect of Palm Oil cultivation on animals in Sri Lankan, Otara Gunewardene stated that “continued growth of oil palm has shown that it cannot facilitate the growth of animals (inclusive of insects). This shows that there is little possibility of symbiotic relationships being formed, contrary to trees like coconut.” It’s 2018 and while we should be taking steps to protect our wildlife, unsustainable palm oil cultivation could lead to the endangering of even more species on the island.
The increasing demand for this product is the driving force behind the rural communities of Indonesia and Malaysia. On one hand we have our environment at the stake, and on the other the livelihood of many poor people struggling to earn a living. Europe has already dropped the use of Palm Oil in foods and cosmetics, having realized the environmental consequences. Yet now, we find Sri Lanka in support of this industry.
Statistical evidence by Universities within Sri Lanka, such as the University of Ruhuna, shows that ground water levels deplete on concentrated growth of Palm Oil. Studies conducted elsewhere; such as in Indonesia point out that the quality of ground water is also affected by the adverse impacts of the required fertilizer to grow oil palm.
20,000 hectares of our land has been allocated to Oil Palm Cultivation- 11,000 of which are already in use. Minister of Plantation Industries, Navin Dissanayake, claimed Palm Oil to be a sound investment that will have beneficial impacts on economy and environment and stated that “there is a lot of criticism against oil palm and some of it are unscientific and emotional”.
Yet, research shows that the environmental consequences have been clearly proven to be, not emotional, but scientific facts. This decision has unfortunately clearly been made with regards to short term prospects. As long as communities continue to accept oil palm cultivation, industries all over the world will resume their unlawful actions towards the environment and the species living in it.
Furthermore, the fact that palm oil crops are more profitable than those of rubber is a dangerous thought ruminating amongst people. While discouraged by government officials, these statistics have motivated local producers to consider replacing traditional means (such as rubber plantations) with that of oil palm cultivation.
Giving a grass root opinion, Mr. Jayantha Wijesinghe, convener of the Rainforest Protectors’ of Sri Lanka mentioned that Oil palm’s inception in the island, was under the pretext of being a test crop. He stated that “the growth shown in palm oil plantation comes with the alleged lack of cheap labour available for the acquisition of rubber and coconut based raw materials, this lack of cheap labor comes not with the workers expecting high payments but industry owners paying the workers fees below par”.
He went on further to point out that planters have worked under no proper jurisdiction as they have gone ahead in removing rubber and other cultivation, which can be done only in areas which have a slope of less than 30o. “The Kegalle region provides a bigger canopy and forest cover, compared to that of Sinharaja, and targeted deforestation is being conducted in these areas to ameliorate the oil palm plantations,” stated Mr. Jayantha when in conversation with us regarding the prevailing condition of the palm oil industry.
So the question remains – is this a sustainable income?
The answer is no. While certainly profitable, the industry is under a lot of fire for its toxic actions. The cultivation of Palm Oil has led to the shrinking of rainforests and burning of carbon-rich swamps – this has been a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions and thus, a major contributor to Global Warming. Governments, often too focused on economy, pay no heed to the habitats and species lost and have gone as far as to take part in illicit land allocations and child labour.
Claims have also been made that felling of trees are occurring in areas which are identified as “catchment areas”, which are highly sensitive eco systems which receive high percentages of rain.
While there is no concrete proof yet to state that Sri Lanka will follow in such unsustainable measures, to partake in this cultivation is to support the industry as a whole. In terms of global views, this industry has been linked to various human rights and animal rights violations as well as disastrous environmental impacts. Is this truly the industry we wish to support?
All of us can make more of an effort in avoiding Palm Oil products and switching to sustainably sourced products, if you wish to support a more sustainable future.