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Palm Oil Production: The Shocking Truth
If you look through the food and cleaning products you have in your house, you will more than likely find several products that contain palm oil or any number of its derivatives.
This industry is rife with corruption: Palm oil production displaces people who have lived off the land for thousands of years. It burns orangutans alive and sells orphan primates on the black market. It destroys acres and acres of rainforest lands.
And it provides America with cheap processed foods and soap.
It's hard to imagine that the products we purchase and use every day could have such an enormous impact on people and creatures who live in far-off parts of the world, but these issues are common occurrences in the tropical rainforest. On the island of Borneo, lush jungles teeming with biodiversity are burned and cleared for palm oil plantations.
Palm oil, a common ingredient found in many processed foods, household goods, and biofuels, rakes in piles of money. Racketeers who run palm oil operations literally get away with murder by bribing the authorities. These criminals exploit workers, ruin the lives of native peoples, and violently reduce wildlife populations.
A Dangerous Line of Work
"We couldn't have any guides or interpreters because nobody wanted to take the risk to join us because there's so much corruption in some of the places we worked, most of the places we worked." -Mattias Klum
In Borneo: Paradise Under Siege, National Geographic photographer Mattias Klum reveals both the beauty and the ugliness that exists in the jungles of Borneo today. The exotic biodiversity is breathtaking, and the rampant destruction is heartbreaking.
Local translators and guides refused to assist Mattias Klum and his crew. The job was too dangerous and not worth the risk. A pilot agreed to fly them over a hydroelectric dam in Malaysia only once for fear that he would be discovered and lose his job. Keep in mind this isn't an illegal drug ring; it is an industry that produces ingredients found in your breakfast cereal and shampoo.
Imagine working long hours of intense manual labor, all the while knowing that your employer has the power to harm your family if you explain to outsiders the details of what you do for a living. Governmental authorities are all bought and paid for and look the other way when tragedy strikes. It sounds like the plot to a typical action thriller, but this is real life for thousands of palm kernel oil workers.
Mattias Klum's Borneo: Paradise Under Siege
Palm Oil Production: Wealth and Corruption
Destruction of the Penan Hunter-Gatherers
"All that we can hear is the sound of the logging company bulldozers. It is like a poison that will eventually kill us." -Penan
The Penan are hunter-gatherers whose lives depend on the forest. They live in Sarawak, a state that doesn't recognize the native peoples' rights to their land.
For the past 40 years, the government has supported commercial logging where the Penans' live and find their food.
Plans to build 12 hydroelectric dams are in the works, which will flood the villages of the Penan and other native groups.
One dam is under construction and has already displaced some of the Penan.
Those who once lived freely in the jungle now struggle to grow food on plots of land provided by the government. They are forced to live in subsidized housing and struggle to pay bills that they wouldn't even have, had their lives not been ruined.
Killing our Cousins
"Conversion of orangutan habitat to palm oil plantations represents the single greatest threat to the survival of the orangutan." -redapes.org
Orangutans are brutalized by the logging industry. Their homes are burned and destroyed in order to make room for palm oil crops. In the midst of the destruction, "islands" of rainforest still exist and provide a refuge for surviving orangutans.
When mothers and their babies escape to these pockets of remaining forest, they risk getting caught by poachers. Poachers kill the mother orangutan and pry the baby off of her body. Orangutan meat is sold on the black market and babies are sold into the illegal pet trade.
Willie Smits operates two centers that contain about a thousand orangutans who have suffered as a result of deforestation. His work involves regrowing the devastated forests to save the orangutans and restore the jungle.
The Exotic Rainforest
What Can We Do?
"We are bound to be able to make a difference both politically and as consumers" -Mattias Klum
The EPA decided that palm oil shouldn't be included in the Renewable Fuel Standard that requires renewable fuel to be blended into gasoline. However, we are all aware of how lobbyists work and the power they have in Washington. Palm oil lobbyists are no exception, and they are pressuring the agency to change their decision. We must actively oppose the use of palm-oil-based biofuels.
Try to abstain from products that contain palm oil and its derivatives. Be aware that there are 30 other names that palm oil may be labeled under. Since processed foods are unhealthy and often contain palm oil, ditching these products is a win-win.
When you're looking for new wood furniture or cabinets, make sure these products have the Forest Stewardship Council seal. FSC protects the environment, workers' rights, and the lands of native peoples.
Share your knowledge with others. Most of us will take a few seconds to check labels when we know what is at stake. We don't have to be fanatics, but making our purchases with awareness creates a significant positive impact on the world.
© Liz Davis 2012 Palm Oil Production