The palm oil problem

Palm oil plantations are ravaging much of Borneo and Sumatra, but is boycotting it really the answer? David Jesudason investigates a world of cash crops and a legacy of colonial debt.

Since the 1980s, Borneo’s rainforests have been cleared to grow cash crops, particularly one synonymous with unethical practices and wildlife destruction: palm oil.

Recently, the devastation caused by palm oil producers has gained a lot of media attention from Iceland’s censored Christmas advert highlighting its palm oil ban, to the EU voting against the use of palm in biofuels from 2020.

The message has been clear. Palm oil should be avoided as its use means the rainforests have been burned down, contributing to climate change, unsustainable agricultural systems and threatening the survival of orangutan populations in Borneo and Sumatra.

My father lived in Sabah, in Northern Borneo, and when I visited him more than a decade ago, I saw the palm plantations and the destruction they had caused. I saw how the smog caused by burning trees blighted life in the region and the amount of pests, such as rats and snakes, that thrived in plantations.  

Palm oil plantations are one of the drivers of deforestation in Sumatra, Indonesia.

I took steps to cut out palm oil. I read labels, avoided processed food where possible and cooked more meals using natural ingredients, while choosing household items more carefully.  

But after speaking to various conservationists working in Borneo, it becomes obvious that dealing with the issue of palm oil requires much more than individual action. In fact, avoiding palm oil could be the wrong thing to do altogether.

 “A blanket boycott now won’t help at all,” says Marc Ancrenaz, who has worked as a conservationist in Sabah for 22 years.

Between 1973 and 2015, around 45 per cent of Borneo’s forest was cut down, and Ancrenaz says it was important to have boycotted palm oil when deforestation was first highlighted as an issue in the West in the 1980s.

He adds: “Today we are in a situation where some of the industry players really want to improve their practices and if they don’t have a market then they won’t get any incentives to keep improving their practices.”

Ancrenaz also sees the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) accreditation as a step in the right direction. However, the use of this certification system has been met with criticism with some observers arguing that it has not led to a quick enough pace of change.

Leif Cocks
Conservationist Leif Cocks says ex-colonial countries rely on cash crops due to the economic hardships caused by independence.

An issue such as palm oil is never going to have a quick fix, sadly. Friends of the Earth Malaysia has even said that the media’s focus on it has meant that few have reported that Borneo has more planned paper and pulp plantations than palm sites

From palm, to paper and pulp

Like with all cash crops, if demand drops palm will be replaced by something else, in this case, paper and pulp.

These cash crops have a monocultured system that lead to all sorts of environmental issues and simply are not sustainable – which means that the ecosystem will collapse.

Leif Cocks, an Australian conservationist who founded The Orangutan Project in 1998 to protect Bornean orangutans from extinction, says that monocultured crops cause all sorts of environmental issues and is keen to emphasise how their ubiquity is spawned from unrestrained market forces.

“It’s about these ex-colonial countries,” he says. “They weren’t allowed to become independent without debt. That has allowed the West to continue to ask unreasonably to have access to their resources at their own expense.”

Cocks views the situation in realistic terms arguing that smallholders, who have families to feed, have little incentive to maintain trees on their land when its only value is through selling to multinationals producing palm oil.

Instead, he believes that the only way to help the situation is to take collective action through supporting charities.

Palm oil is one of the most profitable products in the world, but it’s sold very cheaply to western consumers and it’s rare that profits are passed on to farmers, says Cocks.

“We in the west, let’s say, we are 10 or 20 dollars a week better off, because we are buying products that are subsidised by powerless people in other countries,” he says. “If you really want to do good why don’t you invest that 10 or 20 dollars? Which is basically giving to a charity.”

Borneo orangutan
Communicating concerns with companies that use palm oil on social media can help. 

The pressure to be ethical

Michelle Desilets, executive director of the Orangutan Land Trust, has worked in conservation for 25 years, with 15 spent in palm oil. She believes that collective action can dovetail with individual action especially if consumers contact brands they expect to be ethical through social media.

“Twitter gets a lot of visibility. Communicating that you are not satisfied with a brand that is not doing enough to ensure their palm oil is sustainable is effective. Go ahead and boycott these products, but always tell the company why you are boycotting.”

Conservationists, such as Ancrenaz, even argue that palm oil can be ethical if companies work to create sustainably logged areas where orangutans can adapt to this new environment.

We realise now that orangutans are able to survive in disturbed forests and there are more food and resources in disturbed forests than in primary forests – the disturbed trees allow for sun and light to go through the canopies and all kind of plant species start to grow.” 

Issues like palm oil can leave you feeling nihilistic but if you take a measured, educated approach, by supporting the work of conservationists and taking personal action, you could play an active part in safeguarding Borneo’s future.


Leave a Reply

  1. Yes and no. The problem with what is referred to as sustainable palm oil is that with such a profitable and increasing market there is still pressure to cut down more trees. It may become whites called sustainable eventually but it wasn’t at first. It is a never ending cycle until all the trees are gone. Even then the marketing departments will still call it sustainable.

  2. Clearly there is a way forward to make palm oil production much more sustainable but much more needs to be done to reach that point and I remain very sceptical that it will ever be reached.

    One simple change that everyone could make is to switch from margarine to butter – it would reduce palm oil consumption, help our farmers and with butter packed in paper reduce plastic consumption as well.- its also much nicer!

    The Greenpeace add was very good but this is much better –


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