Palm oil - where does it come from?

And where does all this palm oil come from? According to Friends of the Earth, 87% of UK companies have no idea.

Perhaps they should consider this: in 2004, Malaysia and Indonesia together accounted for 85% of global palm-oil production and 89% of global exports.

No surprise, then, that locals call it a "wonder oil''. It has now pipped soybean oil as the world's largest vegetable-oil crop.

orangutang with young
Image: © David Birkin

Environmentalists, however, are calling it "cruel oil''. In the decade between 1992 and 2003, the orang-utan habitat declined by more than 5.5 million hectares, while the palm-oil plantations across Borneo and Sumatra increased by almost 4.7 million hectares.

There is a direct link between the two statistics.

The expansion of palm-oil plantations has been achieved to a large extent by converting primary forest.

Forest - palm oil - biofuel

It is not hard to understand why. Even though there is plenty of degraded land on which to plant trees, selling the timber from the forest that you have cleared to make way for a plantation can do wonders for the bottom line. Add to this the ever-increasing demand for biofuels.

Ironically, palm oil is currently being hailed as an environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuels because it can be mixed with diesel to produce a part-biofuel that does not require engines to be converted.

Last September, Malaysia announced a joint venture with private partners to build three plants that will make this new fuel for export to Europe. Western businesses and governments will rush to exploit this new, seemingly laudable demand for biofuel, and more forests in Sumatra and Borneo will be destroyed.

As Thoreau once wrote:

We have found the enemy and he is us.


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