Land Use Driving Extinction, Global Warming
The agricultural land base needed for food production is shrinking in many parts of the world. To compensate, global agricultural operations for livestock, soybeans and palm oil have been converting the world’s tropical rainforests into farmland—industrial-scale plantations and ranches. The results have been devastating for people, planet and wildlife.
Forestry and other land use (FOLU) is one of the most urgent issues facing humanity and the planet. Land conversion is the single greatest cause of extinction of terrestrial species. Deforestation and other land uses are contributing to global warming and climate change. Degraded lands are the center of much discussion as global demands for food, feed and fuel continue rising at unprecedented rates.
The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed the UN Decade of Restoration following a proposal for action by more than 70 countries. The UN Decade runs from 2021 through 2030, which is the deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals and the timeline scientists have identified as the last chance to prevent catastrophic climate change. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is a rallying call for the protection and revival of ecosystems all around the world, for the benefit of people and nature. It aims to halt the degradation of ecosystems, and restore them to achieve global goals. Only with healthy ecosystems can we enhance people’s livelihoods, counteract climate change, and stop the collapse of biodiversity.
There are many benefits to restoring degraded lands, especially when it can spare forests and avoid competition with food crops.The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is leading a push for the world to scale up efforts to restore landscapes and forests over the next decade, with goals to salvage 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested lands, an area larger than India. Increasing the yield from existing croplands also is an important part of the solution.
Palm Oil Production and Consumption
Industrial use of vegetable oils has doubled in the past 15 years, with palm oil being the cheapest and, therefore, most popular. The palm oil industry is a prime example of land conversion, land degradation and many other crimes against nature. The industry barely existed 50 years ago. Now, palm oil is worth an estimated $80 billion per year. Palm fruit yields both palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil is extracted from the pulp of the fruit and is used in food. Palm kernel oil is extracted from the seed of the fruit. It is used in cosmetics. Palm oil also is being used as a biofuel–a very expensive biofuel when the environmental costs are added up. The European Union approved a new energy plan for the 28-member economic zone that will ban the use of palm oil in motor fuels on the continent from 2021 onwards. It’s a step that all nations must adopt to save our rainforests and biodiversity, while fighting global warming and climate change.
Indonesia and Malaysia currently produce more than 85 percent of the global supply thanks to millions of acres of rainforest destruction and conversion. This slimy industry has become the world’s low-cost producer of vegetable oil (unless you add in the cost of ecosystem destruction via fires and paraquat dichloride).
The keys to cheap palm oil and maximum profits:
- Convert rainforests into palm tree plantations with toxins and fire;
- Employ an invasive species of super palm from Africa;
- Use industrial defoliants and fire to clear millions of acres of land;
- Turn local villagers and indigenous communities into cheap labor;
- Fund the development of your palm tree plantation with the sale of tropical timber, such as teak and rosewood. Turn the rest into pulp and paper;
- Expand your plantation footprint by taking land illegally from locals; and
- Kill wildlife, including orangutans and elephants, that return in search of food.
While the health benefits of palm oil have been disputed, palm oil plantations are a major driver of deforestation in some of the world’s most critical ecosystems. They are degrading the environment and affecting the carbon sinks of the world.
Around 24 million hectares of rainforest were destroyed in Indonesia between 1990 and 2015, according to official figures from the Indonesian government. That’s an area the size of the UK. In one year, Indonesia lost around one million hectares of its forests. Palm oil and paper companies are the main causes of this destruction. Approximately 45 million acres of land in Indonesia has been licensed for palm oil development. The Indonesian government plans to build more than 100 coal-fired power plants, while expanding palm oil production for local biofuel consumption.
It’s estimated that up to 300 football fields of forest are cleared globally every hour to make room for palm plantations, destroying the habitat of already critically endangered species like the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and rhino. Half of the Bornean orangutan population has been wiped out in just 16 years. Indonesia’s peatland destruction is roughly the equivalent of 70 large, coal-fired power plants. As estimated by Nature Communications Journal, one hectare of forest converted into a palm oil plantation in Indonesia results in 174 lost tons of carbon. Deforestation is the road to hell.
Often, timber companies and oil palm cultivators work hand in hand. “As the timber resource has been depleted, the timber companies are now engaging in the oil palm business, completing the annihilation of Sarawak’s peat swamp forests,” observes Marcel Silvius, a senior scientist at Wetlands International.
These palm trees are an invasive species imported from Africa. Every two or three weeks, each mature tree produces a 50-pound bunch of dates, bursting with a red, viscous oil that is more versatile than almost any other plant-based oil of its kind. Indonesia is rich in timber and coal, but palm oil is its biggest export.
Palm tree plantations have a lifecycle of 28-30 years. Once the trees are taller than 12 meters, it isn’t economical to harvest the fruits, which contain the oil. The palm trees are then cut and replaced by new trees. This waste speaks volumes about this industry.
Unfortunately, millions of acres of pristine rainforest on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra have been slashed and burned to make room for this criminal industry.
Now, fewer than 300 of these majestic tigers live in the wilds of Indonesia (a country that has already lost two tiger subspecies—Bali and Java). Thousands of orangutans have been tortured and killed. Indigenous people and advocates have been abused, raped and murdered.
The Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil Has Failed
The palm oil sector is rife with corporate social responsibility issues. To help cover their tracks, palm oil producers and buyers, including Unilever, colluded to form a greenwashing “scheme” (their word). The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a voluntary certification watchdog/lapdog, created in 2004 to reassure shoppers and manufacturers who buy palm oil that anything bearing the RSPO label is not connected to the destruction of rainforests, including the habitats of endangered species such as orangutans, as well as human rights abuses and contributing to the climate crisis. It has more than 4,000 members in 93 countries and operates under the slogan “Transforming markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm“ – is still blowing smoke. About 93 percent of the world’s RSPO-certified palm oil is produced in Indonesia (51 percent) and Malaysia (42 percent). Unfortunately, so-called sustainable palm oil is part of the problem.
As such, the world is now drowning in palm oil at the expense of the planet and the people. As demand grows, our rainforests shrink. Countless examples show that industrial oil palm plantations are still synonymous with violence and destruction. The RSPO, a supposed solution to ecocide, creates a smokescreen that makes deforestation and violence invisible to buyers, consumers and financiers. Major companies including Nestle, Mars, PepsiCo, and Unilever have committed to buying palm oil from companies that do not participate in deforestation. So far, it’s been a pipe dream loaded with false claims.
RSPO claims that the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent is key among its own Principles and Criteria. The right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent implies, among others, that if a community denies the establishment of this poisonous monoculture in its territory, operations cannot be carried out. Reality shows us that despite this objection, many projects go ahead. Concessions are often guaranteed long before the company reaches out to the affected communities. Under these circumstances, to say that Free, Prior and Informed Consent is central to RSPO is bluntly false and disrespectful.
RSPO also argues that where conflicts with the plantation companies arise, communities can always use its complaint mechanism. However, the mechanism is complex and it rarely solves the problems that communities face and want to resolve. This becomes particularly apparent in relation to land legacy conflicts where the mechanism is biased against communities. It allows companies to continue exploiting community land until courts have come to a decision. This approach encourages companies to sit out such conflicts and count on court proceedings dragging on, often over decades.
Another argument used by RSPO is that industrial oil palm plantations have lifted millions of people out of poverty. That claim is certainly questionable, even more so considering that there is also an important number of people who have been displaced over the past decades to make space for plantations. Some indigenous communities have in fact lost their fertile land, forests and rivers to oil palm plantations, adversely affecting their food, culture and local economies.
The RSPO promise of transformation has turned into a powerful greenwashing tool for producers and buyers. In my opinion, it’s a meaningless label that producers and buyers can buy. It speaks volumes about the brands that buy it.
In a January 2019 report, the World Health Organization warned that alternative names for palm oil and unclear labeling is misleading consumers. “Consumers may be unaware of what they are eating or its safety.” It compared the palm oil industry to Big Tobacco, suggesting that the palm oil industry is deploying similar tactics to influence research into the health effects of its products.
“These tactics – like establishing lobbying structures in political and economic hubs, fighting regulations, attempting to undermine reliable sources of information and using poverty alleviation arguments – are similar to those pursued by the tobacco and alcohol industries” it reports. “However, the palm oil industry receives comparatively little scrutiny.”
For example, the RSPO didn’t take a stand against deforestation until 2019. It paraded around for 15 years claiming sustainability and transformation of the industry, while taking no meaningful position against deforestation, human-caused forest fires or using the industrial poison paraquat dichloride. It ignored claims of corruption and collusion as recently as last year. The RSPO scheme may prove more detrimental to the planet than the hoax about fossil fuels.
Instead of transforming an industry, RSPO has enabled ecocide and more. Greenpeace International, in its report Burning Down the House, revealed that RSPO members have been at the center of the 2019 Indonesia fires crisis. The crisis burned an area five times the size of Greater London. Members have also been linked to more than 1.2 million hectares of fires across Indonesia since 2015.
“Consumers are being conned by certified sustainable palm oil,” said Richard George, Head of Forests at Greenpeace UK. “The phrase is utterly meaningless because the body responsible for certifying palm oil is made up of some of the most destructive growers and producers in Indonesia. This is a henhouse insurance scheme run by foxes. If truly sustainable palm oil is ever to exist, globally we have to use less of it. Right now, more than half the palm oil coming into Europe is for so called biofuel. This has to stop. Brands and supermarkets must also commit to using far less palm oil and ensure any they do use comes from suppliers that are 100 percent deforestation-free.”
Brands such as Unilever, Mondelez, Nestlé and Procter & Gamble are linked to nearly 10,000 fire hotspots. Palm oil traders Wilmar, Cargill, Musim Mas, and Golden-Agri Resources all were buying from producers linked to the fires at the time. Together, the four traders supply more than three-quarters of global palm oil. All are RSPO members.
“Big brands and traders have created a facade of sustainability,” said Annisa Rahmawati, Senior Forest Campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia. “The reality is that they source from the very worst offenders across the board. The companies responsible for the fires and those who financially benefit from them should be held accountable.”
A 2019 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency and the Malaysian organization Grassroots reveals that the RSPO is “effectively giving false environmental credibility to its products.” The report uncovers fraudulent auditing of oil palm plantations, primary forests cleared to make way for plantations, and community rights being violated.
Environmental Investigation Agency produced a report Who Watches the Watchmen? 2, have established a catalogue of shortcomings, including fraudulent auditing of oil palm plantations, primary forests being felled and community land rights violated.
If you consume palm oil, you are contributing to the demise of endangered species, endangered ecosystems and the planet. In Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, critical habitat for the orangutan and Sumatran tiger have been burned and turned into massive plantations of palm trees. Tons of these tiny dates are used to produce palm oil, which is used unnecessarily as an additive to food, fuel and personal products, which means it’s probably in your home. Palm oil wasn’t broadly commercialized until the 1960s. Now, this slimy industry has become the world’s low-cost producer of vegetable oil (unless you add in the cost of ecosystem destruction via fires and paraquat dichloride). As such, the world is now drowning in palm oil at the expense of the planet and the people. As demand grows, our rainforests shrink even more.
Millions of consumers have been deliberately duped into believing that sustainable palm oil is harmless, if not beneficial to the planet. The truth is that most so-called sustainable palm oil is produced on land that was critical wildlife habitat just 20 years ago. With the support of the Indonesian and Malaysian governments, for example, companies logged the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. Once cleared of most trees and wildlife, the land was then burned in huge infernos that threatened public health across much of Southeast Asia. Then, the parent company had its palm oil production division step in, offer to repurpose this degraded land with government handouts, and then launch a sustainable palm oil plantation. Even the Roundtable Of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has called it a scheme all along. The group has been a fraud and a smokescreen for ecosystem destruction since its inception. As a result, global deforestation has accelerated at the hands of palm oil producers, including RSPO members.
“If the RSPO is not upholding any of its own rules and if its palm oil isn’t what it says it is on the tin, then that’s a major problem for the industry,” said Siobhan Pearce, Forests Campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency. “Consumers should also be worried because they’re buying this certified palm oil on the understanding that it does not cause harm to the environment, that it’s not destroying wildlife or forests and that it’s not exploiting local people. You have to wonder whether the RSPO has any credibility at all – to a certain extent, we’re all being conned because the RSPO is not keeping to its own rules and procedures. It’s greenwashing.”
RSPO failures identified by the new EIA/Grassroots report include:
- a complaint case concerning community land rights which has been ongoing for nine-and-a-half years;
- cases where the RSPO is aware companies have cut down primary forest but has failed to stop them, compensate communities or eject the offending companies from its membership;
- fraudulent auditing carried out on plantations;
- land conflicts not being identified;
- primary forest and important habitats being degraded;
- auditors not properly trained or not having the necessary knowledge;
- RSPO collusion with companies to hide flagrant violations of its own standards;
- the RSPO not following its own rules;
- mismanagement of the entire process;
- a system which is slow and unresponsive to active violations of its standards.
“This is a scandalous state of affairs because we raised all these issues with the RSPO four years ago and it set up a special task force which was meant to develop a comprehensive work program to deal with them, but it hasn’t delivered,” Pearce added. “The world is in the midst of a climate and natural emergency and can no longer afford to wait for the RSPO to slowly nudge companies in the right direction while still allowing them to do continual harm to the environment and people.”
Palm-oil forests certified as sustainable are being destroyed faster than non-certified land, experts have found, in a study they say blows the lid on any claims that the oil can be destruction-free. Plantations with eco-friendly endorsements have lost 38 percent of their forest cover since 2007, while non-certified areas have lost 34 percent, according to researchers from Purdue University in the US state of Indiana. The use of sustainability labels had allowed for even greater expansions of plantations that are driving orangutans towards extinction in Southeast Asia and destroying natural carbon-absorbing rainforests, they said. They drew their conclusions after 15 years of fact-finding missions, using data from these missions as well as from satellite, governmental, charities and palm oil companies’ own reports, analyzing 2,210 concessions, which are licensed palm-growing areas.
The study was published in July 2020 in the Journal Science of the Total Environment. It is titled “Certified ‘sustainable’ palm oil took the place of endangered Bornean and Sumatran large mammals habitat and tropical forests in the last 30 years,” conducted by Professor Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, associate professor at the Tomsk State University in Russia and research fellow at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Austria, and Russian biologist Alena Velichevskaya, showed via a highly detailed analysis of satellite images that certified oil palm concessions and supply bases replaced the habitats of endangered mammals and biodiverse tropical forests of Sumatra and Borneo over the last few decades.
From 2001 to 2016, total tree loss in Indonesian palm oil concessions was equivalent to 34.2 percent of the area covered by the plantations but the loss in certified sustainable plantations was higher – 38.3 percent.
“There is no reason for companies to claim sustainable palm oil and to use labels for certified products because, in terms of deforestation, there is no significant difference between a certified and a non-certified palm oil plantation. Both need (or needed in the recent past) the complete removal of the original tropical forest. We suggest that the phrase sustainable palm oil no longer be used to greenwash palm oil, because it cannot certify that the production of palm oil comes from a non-recent degradation of tropical forests and endangered species habitats. In fact, we discovered that the current certified palm oil demand is almost fully supplied by those bases and concessions that, in less than three decades, replaced some of the most diverse tropical forests of the world and habitats of big mammals threatened by extinction.”
Based on forest loss trends, if governments do not act immediately and end acceptance of certification schemes, the world will almost completely lose Southeast Asian forests in a few decades.
“Our research shows there is no way to produce sustainable palm oil that did not come from deforestation, and that the claims by corporations, certification schemes and non government organizations are simply greenwashing, useful to continue business as usual,” he added. “If you use palm oil, certified or not, you are definitely destroying tropical forests. Any land that is certified today was a valuable and biodiverse forest in the recent past.”
Another recent analysis by Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, using data from 1990 to 2019, shows that 41 percent of existing oil palm plantations in Indonesia occupy previously forested areas.
Despite this reality, an estimated 50 percent of supermarket products contain palm oil. It’s in everything from shampoo to chocolate. It’s also in many biofuels. Companies such as Unilever, Mondelez, Pepsi, General Mills and many others have touted their use of sustainable palm oil.
Unilever, has been racking up awards for sustainability, while driving deforestation, destruction and extinction. Unilever is one of the leading buyers of palm oil and has been for years. That’s why it helped create the RSPO scheme. It’s proudly touting its conversion to 100 percent RSPO. Gatti accused those who say certified plantations are sustainable of hiding the evidence.
Even the World Wildlife Fund has been part of the act. According to WWF, “One of the huge successes of the Roundtable is the development of a certification system for sustainable palm oil.” On its website, WWF has a promotional video for the RSPO. It doesn’t show any of the destruction caused by oil palm, or the abuses of indigenous and community rights. There’s no mention of the fires that engulf Indonesia every dry season. There are no interviews with workers forced to work in conditions of modern-day slavery. Instead, we watch a series of graphics, with WWF’s voice-over telling us that RSPO’s certification system helps to protect nature and people. It guarantees fair working conditions. It upholds indigenous peoples’ rights to their land. Clearing rainforest is forbidden. Areas rich in biodiversity and endangered species are protected. Quite a scheme, indeed.
According to the study, which was published in the Science of the Total Environment journal, there is a trick to certification. First, an old-growth tropical forest is cut (or slashed-and-burned) for paper and pulp or valuable tropical timber trades. Then, Then a traditional, non-certified palm oil plantation is started. After a certain time, the traditional plantation is transformed into a certified palm oil plantation to earn RSPO’s sustainability label.
“The trick is that they make leverage on the absence of historical records on land use change, hiding the reality that even a certified concession was, in the recent past, a highly biodiverse tropical forest,” Gatti said.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species documents 321 species for which oil palm is a reported threat (more than for other oil crops).
“We do not have any means to stop Southeast Asian deforestation due to palm oil with labels and certification schemes,” Gatti said. “The only solution seems to be the complete ban of the export of this tropical oil in developed and developing countries, combined with a more selected use of local oils by food, cosmetics and bioenergy corporations.
“Some critics of the full ban on palm oil argued that palm oil is more productive and requires less land than other oils. If this is true, my question is why palm oil has to be considered an essential livelihood for humanity.” (Can you live without Nutella or Girl Scout cookies? Leaving a product on the shelf doesn’t harm anyone or anything).
Gatti urges a combination of a more localized use of oils, cutting fatty and unhealthy snack foods such as those containing palm oil, bans on importing palm oil by the EU, US, China and India and the use of more sustainable oils. The professor said he believed that claims that the industry provides swathes of jobs were weak because the multinationals’ contracts with mills in Southeast Asia were temporary, short-term ones.
“Corporate giants like Colgate, Nestlé and Unilever assure consumers that their products use sustainable palm oil, but our findings reveal that the palm oil is anything but,” said Meghna Abraham, Senior Investigator at Amnesty International. “Companies are turning a blind eye to exploitation of workers in their supply chain. Despite promising customers that there will be no exploitation in their palm oil supply chains, big brands continue to profit from appalling abuses.”
Meanwhile, biofuel from oil palm cannot compensate for the carbon released when forests are cleared and peatlands drained. Oil palm plantations and the production of palm oil can also be sources of methane and nitrous oxide, both potent greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. In 2019, the EU labeled palm oil as an unsustainable fuel. It will phase it out between 2023 and 2030. Food isn’t fuel.
According to Nature, “there is evidence of positive impacts of RSPO certification and its management practices, including changes in agrochemical use, improved forest protection and reduced fires and biodiversity losses, although these effects remain small.”
Back in 2010, some of the world’s biggest brands promised to protect forests and clean up the palm oil industry by 2020. It hasn’t happened.
“Many major consumer goods firms now delegate responsibility for their sourcing policies to the RSPO and, by extension, to these auditors,” said EIA Forest Campaigner Tomasz Johnson. “If the auditors are engaging in box-ticking and even colluding to cover up unsustainable practices, then products will get to the supermarket shelves that are tainted with human trafficking, rights abuses and the destruction of biodiversity.”
Just say no to personal products, food and biofuels that contain palm oil. Don’t buy the lies about sustainable palm oil. Unfortunately, sustainable palm is still a smoke screen for the rape and pillage of people and the planet. It still stands for nothing. It still contributes to your rising cholesterol. Palm oil isn’t for vegans or anyone else. (It contains blood and bullshit.)
“If there was truly sustainable palm oil, nobody would be talking about banning it,” said Birute Galdikas, one of the world’s leading primate researchers and founder of the Orangutan Foundation International.
As all of this fraud indicates, the palm oil producers and buyers are desperately seeking solutions, while deforestation and its contribution to global warming and wildlife extinction continue. According to a report from the World Economic Forum, the push to get commodity producers, including beef and soy, out of the world’s last rain forests represents a multi-billion dollar opportunity. One of the founders of RSPO is Paul Polman, the former CEO of Unilever. He has just been tapped to head a global effort against greenwashing. Maybe he can clean up this mess. Until then , just say no to palm oil in food and fuels.
Other Land-Use Issues
Agriculture and Land Use: Unfortunately, palm oil isn’t the only segment of agriculture that is being driven into our last rainforests. Global companies have made commitments to stop deforestation by 2020, but instead, forest loss has accelerated, and commodity-driven deforestation is the highest driver. Beef, soybeans and other commodities are also part of the problem. These industries can learn from the misdeeds of palm oil producers.
We also must stop dumping biosolids (sewage sludge) on cropland, forests, parks, golf courses and more. The term biosolids is highly misleading and fraudulent. Sewage sludge contains carcinogens, pharmaceuticals, flame-retardants, radioactive material and neurotoxins that can’t be stopped by wastewater treatment plants. It’s all found in highly toxic sewage sludge, but it’s being sold as fertilizer. It’s definitely bullshit. The U.S. EPA admitted in 2018 that the risk assessments on the land application of sewage sludge are incomplete. This comes about 40 years too late, but the practice still has not been banned. Meanwhile, highly infectious biosolids are contaminating our food, water and air. It’s largely responsible for the global surge in brain disease (autism, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic wasting disease, mad cow disease and
Urban Sprawl: Urban sprawl is consuming traditional farmland, which is driving agricultural production into the forests and rainforests. Cities must become more efficient with land use and they must become part of the food production system. Urban gardens, urban forestry and avoiding food-for-fuel schemes (biofuel) can reduce pressures on our last stands of forests. Meanwhile, residents of coastal communities are being displaced by rising tides and severe storms. The competition for land has never been greater.
All land uses, and not just those in the tropics, have impacts on their environment. In a world with finite land and growing demands, we must consider global demands for food, fuel and industrial uses hand-in-hand with environmental conservation objectives. Business as usual is a dead-end road.
“Our planet is broken,” said the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres. “Every country, city, financial institution and company should adopt plans for a transition to net zero emissions by 2050. Take decisive action now. Apocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes are the new normal.”
His recommendations for world leaders include:
- Put a price on carbon;
- Phase out fossil fuel finance and end fossil fuel subsidies;
- Shift the tax burden from income to carbon, and from tax payers to polluters;
- Integrate the goal of carbon neutrality (a similar concept to net zero) into all economic and fiscal policies and decisions; and
- Help those around the world who are already facing the dire impacts of climate change.
As well as pressing for action on the climate crisis, he urged nations to tackle the extinction crisis.
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