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Palm Oil Is in Everything from Soap to Waffles -- And Causing Massive Human Suffering and Environmental Harm

Here is what some communities are doing to fight back.

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The forest destruction underway is so vast that it has pushed at least two mammal species to the edge of extinction. (It is statistically likely that never-discovered species of plants and insects have already perished.) Palm plantations on Sumatra have pushed the Sumatran tiger into the mountains; where thousands once roamed, just a few hundred tigers survive today. The story is similar on Borneo, which is split between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei Darrusalam. Populations of orangutans – an enigmatic great ape that Indonesians call orang hutan, or “person of the forest” – have been destroyed by habitat loss. Less than 14 percent of the orangutan’s 1950 population remains. The  International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the expansion of palm oil as a grave threat to the primate’s survival.

The industrial logging also has a global environmental impact. Borneo’s lowland rainforests and peat swamp forests are nature’s densest stores of carbon, and when the trees are chopped down and burned or left to rot, or peat swamps drained and dried, the CO2 stored in them is released into the atmosphere. Even though Indonesia has relatively few factories, all of the forest clearing has pushed the country to the top of the list of the world’s contributors to climate change. One study, commissioned by the World Bank, found Indonesia to be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Indonesia’s Environmental Ministry disputes the accuracy of the widely cited study. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the climate impact of deforestation for palm plantations is significant. A recent estimate by the US Department of Energy (using 2008 data) places Indonesia sixteenth on the world’s largest emitters list, on par with Brazil, Australia, and Mexico.

But for Jamaludin and his neighbors, worries about global climate change are abstract; for them, the impact of the palm plantations is immediate and obvious. Sitting on the floor of his home, illuminated by a single bulb hanging overhead, Jamaludin shared with me a straightforward tragedy. The forest and its resources were once the basis of the community’s wealth. When Duta Palma cut and burned its way through the forest, the community lost its livelihood. Jamaludin said his town never gave permission to the palm oil company to destroy the forest nor did they receive compensation for the lands they lost. Jamaludin was most outraged by the fact that his plans to pay for his children’s university education – a goal that was once within reach – were now out of the question. “All that is impossible now,” he told me before we went to bed. “Now all that is left is to struggle.”

I witnessed what that struggle looks like the next morning, on my first full day in Semunying Jaya. We awoke to a cloud of brown smoke billowing over the village. The smoke, Jamaludin said, had hardly stopped since the company began clearing the forest in 2005. As we charged on a motorbike up the muddy track behind the village, Jamaludin said complaints about the forest clearing did not have the effect he hoped for during his many meetings with local government officials. Only a few hundred hectares of the community-held forest remained – about 10 percent of the original. One sign that Duta Palma had heard Jamaludin’s message was its appointment of a community-relations manager to act as a liaison with Semunying Jaya. He is not Dayak but he is from the community – a recent arrival who married one of Jamaludin’s relatives. But working for Duta Palma comes with risks. Just two weeks after taking the job, a Semunying Jaya villager shot the community-relations manager in the leg while he was walking through the forest. A hunting accident, Jamaludin says. But he refuses to tell me who was responsible, raising the suspicion that the assault was an effort to discourage the company from exerting its influence within the community. The company has also constructed a 10-foot-tall chain-link fence around its offices in the center of the plantation; razor wire has been strung along the top of the fence. This does not seem like a welcoming posture to Jamaludin and his neighbors.

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