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THE TWO-HEADED PALM OIL MONSTER

The two-faced nature of the burgeoning global Palm Oil trade calls to mind a classic work of literature with a similar theme: Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At once good and evil, the main character struggles to find his inner peace and a balanced understanding of the seemingly dual nature of his existence.

Without doubt, humans are capable of vividly imaginative methods of creation as well as maddening propositions for destruction. The comparison between Palm Oil and a fictitious mad scientist seems accurate because the Palm Oil business has found difficulty achieving a working relationship between ecology (good) and economy (evil). In the unfolding drama, the future of Palm Oil and the Earth’s climate have become central characters, each weighing heavily on the consciences of green-minded consumers and industries worldwide.

Originally excavated from the jungles of Western Africa for use in the industrialized Europe of the mid-18th century, Palm Oil has surpassed soybean oil as the most widely produced vegetable oil in the world. Palm Oil and its derivatives have become important in the manufacture of soaps, washing powders, personal care products, and are – to the dismay of many environmental watchdogs – an unfavorable source for biofuel.

The demand for Palm Oil and its byproducts is indicative of the rise of consumers’ “green” purchasing trends and an overall expansion of the “green,” “organic,” and “natural” markets. Companies are looking to find the best possible ingredients for their products, and Palm Oil is a healthful, readily available, affordable component of their current formulas and ongoing research and development.

In the underdeveloped, poverty stricken countries of Indonesia and Malaysia – which provide 86% of the world’s Palm Oil supply – the cultivation of this “green gold” has been a tremendous boon. Global demand for Palm Oil has boosted the overall economy of the area, still reeling from the 2004 tsunami, and provided working capital to build roads, schools and bridges, as well as new villages and communities.

But what appears rather benign on the surface has another side, another face that speaks volumes to the growing frenzy of these countries’ desire to gain their share of the 21st century’s global economy. Clear-cutting of entire rainforests – some of the most pristine, bio-diverse, ecologically important in the world – has become commonplace as a means by which to create growth territory for expanding Palm Oil plantations.

Indeed, the heavy-handed destruction of these forests has become a critical issue for global concern. In November 2008 Greenpeace staged a media event to protest a shipment of 27,000 metric tons of Palm Oil from Indonesia, bound for European consumers. Unfortunately, this aggressive action is a single drop in the bucket, with production, transportation and exportation of the highly sought after commodity now becoming more difficult to track. To all who are concerned, the solution to this dilemma appears rooted in a cooperative, regulated and transparent “good governance” plan of action, which can both support the industry and prevent continued rainforest and environmental destruction. The Palm Oil industry evolved in recent times as a harmless and cheap substitute for common vegetable oil products. With the emergence of the alternative-fuel market in the recent decade, companies have found Palm Oil to be – as with its veggie-oil business model – a cheap alternative to more expensive, lesser quality sources. But the means by which Palm Oil becomes available to consumers is of paramount concern, and the facts and figures paint a picture of the most severe ecological threat of this new century. Some estimates claim a total loss of these rainforest regions in the next ten years, with morbidly stark effects upon the global climate.

To make matters worse, this forest clearing isn't the darkest aspect of the dilemma. In the region of Indonesia, Malaysia and Borneo, dense tropical rainforest areas grow on peat-moss swamps – mostly decaying bio-matter from generations of tropical foliage and fauna. These peat-moss forests, or peatlands, are cleared and burned to create viable growth areas for Palm Oil plantations. Not unlike the rampant deforestation of other timber areas, the technique is common and marginally accepted under regulated conditions.

However, the carbon-based materials that make up these soggy-bottom peatland areas are a major pollutant when scorched for clearing. According to a recent article in National Geographic, “Carbon released by decaying peat soil, fires, and deforestation has pushed Indonesia into third place among nations as a source of greenhouse gases, behind only heavily industrialized China and the United States.” The information for this assertion is readily available in a jointly sponsored 2007 report by the British government and the World Bank. As startling as this may sound, it is old news, and the problem is growing larger by the day with the Palm Oil industry continuing to explode as the central revenue generator for these countries. Other viable opportunities do exist for Palm Oil production in sustainable, fair-trade countries like the Philippines and Brazil.

The real irony of this ecological dilemma is recently released data by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace showing “forests and peatlands that are replaced as Palm Oil plantations release more carbon dioxide than is saved by burning biofuels instead of diesel.” With its detrimental effects, what should be a benefit to the world, in the form of healthier oil, has become a bane. Under intense pressure from the United Nations, Greenpeace and the World Bank, the Indonesian government under President Yudhoyono has enacted small measures by which to curtail deforestation and peatland burning. Most critics say this is diplomatic posturing and will result in no favorable changes.

The Kyoto Protocol was revised during the United Nations Climate Change Conference December 2007 meeting in Bali, more directly addressing the issue of deforestation for industries like Palm Oil production. The overwhelming majority agreed necessary components must be implemented to prevent further destruction and harmful emissions. There are numerous conservation initiatives to assist this plan of action – such as the conservation incentive agreement, under its new acronym, REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation).

In the Bali meetings, REDD became the talking point of activists seeking to make an impact instead of continuing the perpetual dance of diplomats. Many supporters see it as the last best opportunity and hope to save some of the world’s most pristine, invaluable rainforests. REDD offers a chance for developed, wealthy nations to put their money where there mouth is. It’s a chance to secure our climate’s future.

Concerned agencies, nations and companies can combat climate change by paying for the conservation of large, priceless areas of tropical rainforests. If the Palm Oil industry is built upon the value of its future, strategic financial action can supplement that future money while preventing continued catastrophic results. There’s certainly a price to pay, but it appears the value far outweighs the cost.

There are other imaginative ideas for conservation, many leading down the same path: cooperation with governments, regions, countries and communities in the form of financial support. Some have sought stop-point action. The San Francisco based Rainforest Action Network issued a pledge in October 2008 to “support a moratorium on the expansion of palm oil plantations into tropical forests.” The pledge has been signed by more than 30 leading consumer and cosmetics goods companies, with dozens more being gently pressured to join.

A few companies have led the trend for forward-thinking Palm Oil production. The AgroPalma Group is an example of how the ecology-economy system can reap valuable benefits in the area of rainforest conservation. AgroPalma’s efforts in the Amazonian regions have produced favorable results and demonstrate a viable, sustainable solution for the continued production of Palm Oil. Policies such as reforestation, recycling and habitat management have allowed the forests to survive and even thrive with renewed vigor.

Greenpeace has produced its own version of REDD, the Tropical Deforestation Emission Reduction Mechanism (TDERM). The stated intent of the activist group’s deforestation initiative is to provide “financing needed to help protect the world’s remaining tropical rainforests by reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.” Again, Greenpeace recognizes the built-in ecology-economy relationship and aims to thwart destruction by supplementing its fuel source: money.

Conservation International has a slogan by which to gain consumer attention to its cause: “Lost There, Felt Here.” The words are matched with an image of depleted rainforest in the shape of human lungs – the image speaks to the corrosive, catastrophic impact of industry on our climate. This Palm Oil issue is a focal point, in some ways, with conservation proponents because it can make headway into a more difficult issue – how to effectively involve underdeveloped nations and regions in saving our world instead of building their economies.

The two-headed monster is not going away, and it is truly a time to gain some insight and make some decisions. In Stevenson’s classic story, the evil Mr. Hyde ends his life and the story with a nod to human compassion. Palm Oil is here to stay, but it’s also necessary to take action to ensure rainforests and our climate remain as well. With good governance, conscious conservation and measured maintenance, a well-designed plan can help meld the good, ecology, with the bad, economy, allowing the two-headed monster to become a single, viable, sustainable, healthful industry for years and generations to come.

Written by: Barry Jude Lendry,


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