Simon Counsell from the Rainforest Foundation explains why a palm oil campaign is so important.
In the forests of West and Central Africa, from Liberia to the Congo, huge areas have been handed out by governments in recent years to mostly Asian companies to clear the land for large plantations of oil palm, the source of an edible oil now ubiquitous in foods which we buy and eat here in the UK.
Oil palm is native to Africa’s equatorial region, and tends to grow best wherever rainforests are found. The production of palm oil in vast densely-planted industrial farms has become synonymous with the destruction of irreplaceable rainforests – the habitat of endangered wildlife such as the orang utan – in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Some of the same companies responsible for the destruction in Asia are now expanding into Africa, apparently driven by the availability of cheap (or free) land, cheap labour, accommodating local governments, and closer proximity to the important markets in Europe, including the UK.
As most forest land in Africa is ‘owned’ by the state, the areas for new palm oil plantations have mostly been signed away Africa – the new palm oil frontier with little or no concern for the many tens of thousands of people already living there. Typically, such people depend on the forest for wild foods, medicine, fresh water, firewood and wood for building their homes.
Without exception, the start of clearance of forest for palm oil in Africa has been met with local resistance, including protests and legal action. Many local communities want the jobs, income and services such as roads, health and education, which palm oil developers promise to bring, but they do not want to lose their lifeline to the forest.
In handing over the lands to foreign companies, governments are failing to recognise long-standing ‘customary ownership’ claims that local people have over them. For those that live there, the loss of their lands is often deeply resented.
The potential environmental impacts of this new ‘palm oil frontier’ in Africa have barely begun to be assessed. Areas important for great apes such as gorillas and chimpanzees are known to be in danger, along with the habitat of many other wildlife species.
One palm oil company – Olam, in Gabon – has committed to avoid destroying ‘high conservation value’ forest, and has even given such areas back to the government.
But, in the absence of careful government planning and control, new development for palm oil will inevitably lead to the construction of networks of new roads and bring an influx of job-seeking people - which in the past has usually spelt doom for nearby forests.
Driving the expansion of this new palm plantation frontier is the continuing rise in demand for cheap vegetable oils. Concern over the impacts of palm oil production led some years ago to the formation of an international body – the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – which aims to move the industry to more socially and environmentally acceptable practices, ‘certifying’ those companies which agree to adopt a minimum standard of best practice.
But the RSPO has been criticised for the weakness of its standards, and it seems relatively powerless to stop new clearances of forest in Africa. Here, the destruction is occurring now, whilst certified production of oil could only happen in 10-12 years time, when the plantations currently being installed reach maturity and start commercial production.
Ethical Consumer has teamed up with the Rainforest Foundation UK – a charity which works to protect rainforests by helping local forest communities secure the rights to their land – to bring greater awareness of the impacts of palm oil production to consumers in the UK. We recently launched the first part of a guide to which companies use palm oil.
We have weighted our ‘ethical score’ to companies that seek to avoid palm oil altogether, though the use of oil certified as sustainable by the RSPO is also important.
We have started with chocolate products, but in the coming months will also include biscuits, bakery products, and eventually many other products which contain palm oil.
In 2014, it will become mandatory for food retailers to label the make up of the vegetable oil content of their products (i.e. what kind of vegetable oil(s) are used). This is welcome in helping people make informed choices about the ‘sustainability’ of food products. Our ‘one-stop’ product guide makes it much easier for consumers to tell at a glance which products can be bought with an easier conscience.
Meanwhile, back in Africa, the Rainforest Foundation is supporting local organisations that are defending the environment and working with local communities faced with the threat of new palm oil plantations.
Whilst we in the UK can help by reducing demand for palm oil, we also need to help communities gain greater security over their land, and to dissuade governments from establishing new palm oil plantations where they will cause unnecessary ecological damage.
Discover which companies scored best in our guide to palm oil with the Rainforest Foundation.
Find out more about how we rated the companies.