One of the worst environmental disasters in recent history occurred on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico with the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil explosion and spill. Spanning approximately 9,100 square miles after only one month, the spill has threatened over 400 wildlife species, the long-term health of the Gulf coast ecosystem, and human livelihood in the region (New Orleans Times).
Unfortunately, there has been another oil spilling into the environment for decades with many more devastating consequences that has received significantly less attention. Palm oil is the world’s most produced, consumed, and traded edible oil (Center for Science in the Public Interest). It is commonly used for cooking oil, processed foods, soaps, and cosmetic products. Indonesia is the world’s top producer of palm oil, and Malaysia and Indonesia combined account for 83% of global production (Center for Science in the Public Interest). Despite being a valuable commodity for Indonesia, palm oil production is significantly damaging Indonesia’s rainforests and environment.
Deforestation is a critical issue for Indonesia and the world as it is interwoven with the economy and environment. Timber, pulp, and paper are major industries for Indonesia, and forests act as substantial carbon dioxide sinks, essential for climate mitigation. Deforestation-related carbon emissions comprise roughly one-fifth of global emissions. In 1950, 77% of Indonesia’s forest land remained, yet by 1997, only 50% was left (Center for Science in the Public Interest). Specifically, though, over 7,000 square miles of rainforest have been cleared for oil palm. A total of over 37,000 square miles of forest have been victims of forest fires, and 133 out of 176 companies using illegal burning were palm oil-related (Center for Science in the Public Interest). Some illegal logging and burning have affected protected forests. Imagine the reaction and public outcry from a proposal to replace parts of Yosemite National Park with oil palm.
Just as the BP oil spill was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to contain, palm oil production has been expanding exponentially and uncontrollably. Due to state permitting and corporate interests, palm oil production is intentionally spilling into the Indonesian forests. Despite international efforts to focus on deforestation as a climate mitigation strategy, a 2007 regulation even extended the size of land permits per company from 20,000 hectares to 100,000 hectares per province (Agetnego Tarigan, WALHI). Tarigan noted that in 2011, planted oil palm plantations covered 11.9 million hectares, though 28.9 million hectares had been permitted in total. Not only does this represent a sizable amount of land allocated for oil palm, but the permitted yet undeveloped land signals the virtually guaranteed expansion of industrial production.
One of the most iconic pictures of any oil spill is a bird fully covered in a think layer of oil, representing the extensive marine and coastal wildlife harmed by a spill. What kind of reaction would occur if an orangutan were pictured on TIME Magazine drenched in oil? With rainforests housing 70% of earth’s plant and animal species, palm oil-related forest destruction threatens a plethora of biodiversity. Dishearteningly, 15 species in Indonesia are critically endangered and 125 species are considered threatened (Center for Science in the Public Interest). The most prominent of the endangered species include the Sumatran Tiger, Orangutan, Sumatran Rhinoceros, and Asian Elephant. As a result of the rapid forest destruction and tropical habitat loss, the World Bank reported that Indonesia was “almost certainly undergoing a species extinction spasm of planetary proportions.”
Furthermore, current oil production routinely comes at the expense of forests and local forest communities. Many villages not only do not have legal rights to the forest resources, but many individuals and whole communities are displaced as a result of the destruction of a forest. However, it’s not the lack of understanding, but the lack of political that is the problem. For decades, large petroleum companies have financially invested in American politics and elections to maintain favor for beneficial subsidies and economic policy. Oil palm companies similarly invest millions in local, provincial, and national elections in Indonesia. To further strengthen their political power, some companies even run candidates for political office. According to Tarigan, four of sixteen elected senators in Kalimantan are presently oil palm commissioners.
This comparison between the BP oil spill and palm oil production is intended to highlight the scope of damage from oil-related environmental damages, though of course they are not identical situations. The comparison also highlights the gap in awareness and attention worldwide about palm oil production and deforestation relative to the massive media and political frenzy surrounding the BP oil spill. Though palm oil may theoretically be able to be produced in a relatively sustainable manner, preceding decades of production have not demonstrated much, if any, regard for the environment and local forest communities affected and the future outlook is bleak.
Despite the similarities, there are key differences to note as well. Not only is this more devastating on the local environment and climate, but the oil palm expansion is completely within our control. It may be difficult to balance competing interests of government, indigenous communities, companies, employees, banks, and countries, but it is possible. We are not facing the challenges of separating oil from water after an explosive accident. Instead, we face the challenge of curbing the systematic deforestation and destruction of vital forests and habitats that are essential to mitigating climate change and preventing species extinction. The same fervor and attention focused on oil spills in the past needs to be applied to the global palm oil industry. Otherwise, our already daunting task of mitigating and adapting to climate change will be all the more challenging.
– Matthew Popkin