Palm Oil

Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil that is derived from the palm fruit, grown on the African oil palm tree. Oil palms are originally from Western Africa, but can flourish wherever heat and rainfall are abundant. Today, palm oil is grown throughout Africa, Asia, North America, and South America, with 85% of all palm oil globally produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia; but most of the time not using sustainable measures.

The industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced, as the land and forests must be cleared for the development of the oil palm plantations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production. This large-scale deforestation is pushing many species to extinction, and findings show that if nothing changes species like the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next 5-10 years, and Sumatran tigers less than 3 years.

In total, tens of millions of tons of palm oil is produced annually, accounting for over 30% of the world’s vegetable oil production. This single vegetable oil is found in approximately 40-50% of household products in many developed countries like Australia. Palm oil can be present in a wide variety of products, including baked goods, confectionery, shampoo, cosmetics, cleaning agents, washing detergents and toothpaste.

Demand for palm oil has increased rapidly in recent decades. This boom in popularity can be attributed to a number of key qualities of the vegetable oil, namely its high efficiency, producing up to 10 times the amount of oil per hectare in comparison with other vegetable oil crops such as canola and soybean. Due to this high yield and the fact oil palms thrive in high-rainfall tropical climates, Malaysia chose to begin producing palm oil in the early 20th century followed by Indonesia some 60 years later. Palm oil soon became a desirable choice for manufacturers, as it was made widely available, had a cheap price tag (due to low production costs in South-East Asia) and is diverse in its uses. 

In the years that followed, the impacts of palm oil production soon became apparent to the rest of the world and the oil became a highly controversial topic. Malaysia and Indonesia, now the two highest palm oil producing countries, continue to rapidly replace their abundant rainforests with oil palm plantations. This has lead to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) declaring the oil as the main driver of deforestation in both these countries. Such deforestation fuels wildlife smuggling, endangerment of species, pollution and land degradation, as well as displacement of indigenous communities, worker’s rights violations and child labour. 

Though still eaten in Western Africa as an important part of basic food staple dishes, palm oil is used in a highly reformed form by most of the rest of the world and traded in an immeasurable amount of product ingredients. The majority of palm oil produced is primarily used by Asian countries, but the demand in Western Nations has boomed in recent decades.

Today, palm oil can be found in anything from cookies and ice-cream to shampoo and air freshener, and the average Western citizen consumes over 10kg of palm oil annually. A major problem is that most consumers are uninformed as to which products contain palm oil that is causing severe environmental and social implications. This is partly due to lack of regulations around the mandatory labeling of palm oil in many countries, leading to palm oil being labeled under more than 170 different names. Politicians, organisations and members of the public have fought hard in countries such as Australia to implement laws on the labeling of palm oil, but have been unsuccessful. This is often due to the government’s own political interests.  

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Impacts on Environment

A large proportion of palm oil expansion occurs at the expense of biodiversity and ecosystems in the countries it is produced. Currently, a third of all mammal species in Indonesia are considered to be critically endangered as a consequence of this unsustainable development that is rapidly encroaching on their habitat.

One animal of particular importance according to conservationists is the orangutan, which has become a charismatic icon for deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra. Over 90% of orangutan habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years, and as such, is considered “a conservation emergency” by the UN. An estimated 1000-5000 orangutans are killed each year for this development. The orangutan is a keystone species and plays a vital role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem. An example of this being the spread of rainforest seeds in Indonesia, many of which can only germinate once passed through the gut of an orangutan, hence this primate is essential for the existence of the forest. But the orangutan is not the only species affected by palm oil development; their situation represents the story of thousands of other species facing the same fate in South-East Asia.

Deforestation for palm oil production also contributes significantly to climate change. The removal of the native forests often involves the burning of invaluable timber and remaining forest undergrowth, emitting immense quantities of smoke into the atmosphere and making Indonesia the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.


Pollution caused by the burning of secondary forests across Borneo and Sumatra increases the quantity of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, subsequently helping to excel climate change. Trees and plants filter such gas and release oxygen intern (through a process called photosynthesis). The removal of the forests themselves in these regions is therefore also a key factor contributing to the increase in atmospheric pollution, as less carbon dioxide is being removed from the air due to diminishing forests.


In addition to its impacts on the climate, conventional palm oil development causes severe damage to the landscape of Borneo and Sumatra and has been linked to issues such as land erosion and the pollution of rivers. The root systems of rainforest trees help to stabilise the soil and therefore if the forests are cleared, land erosion after rainfall can become a common occurrence.

More information will be added to this section soon. 

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Impacts on Animals

There are over 300,000 different animals found throughout the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra, many of which are injured, killed and displaced during deforestation. In addition, palm oil development increases accessibility of animals to poachers and wildlife smugglers who capture and sell wildlife as pets, use them for medicinal purposes or kill them for their body parts. The destruction of rainforests in Borneo and Sumatra is therefore not only a conservation emergency, but a major animal welfare crisis as well.

Wildlife such as orangutans have been found buried alive, killed from machete attacks, guns and other weaponry. Government data has shown that over 50,000 orangutans have already died as a result of deforestation due to palm oil in the last two decades. This either occurs during the deforestation process, or after the animal enters a village or existing palm oil plantation in search of food. Mother orangutans are also often killed by poachers and have their babies taken to be sold or kept as pets, or used for entertainment  in wildlife tourism parks in countries such as Thailand and Bali.

Other megafauna that suffer as a result of this development include species like the Sumatran Tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sun Bear, Pygmy Elephant, Clouded Leopard and Proboscis Monkey. Road networks that are constructed to allow palm oil plantation workers and equipment access to the forest also increase accessibility of these areas to poachers that are looking for these kinds of valuable animals. This allows poachers to comfortably drive to an area to sit and wait for their target where previously they may have had to trek through inaccessible areas of forest. 


Orangutans are one of our closest relatives, sharing over 97% of our DNA. These clever primates are said to have the same intellect as a 5-to-6-year old child, with the ability to undo bolts, pick locks and learn sign language. Despite this high level of intelligence and similarity to humans, an estimated 6 - 12 orangutans are killed each day across Borneo and Sumatra, often in severely brutal ways.

Orangutans are killed during deforestation, when trees are felled or as a result of being crushed by logging machinery. Individuals have also been found burnt, buried alive and dismembered, often because fully-grown orangutans pose a substantial threat to loggers’ safety. Orangutans that wander into existing palm oil plantations in search of food are considered to be agricultural pest, as they have the ability to damage oil palm crops. To address this issue, owners of the plantations often place a bounty on the head of the orangutan - rewarding anyone who successfully disposes of the animal. 

Mother orangutans carrying babies are often killed by poachers or wildlife smugglers. Their babies are taken to be kept within a local village or sold illegally to zoos and tourism parks across Asia and other regions. Some of these regions include countries as far reaching as the United States where they are used in the entertainment industry or for medical or cosmetic testing. 

While there have been few reported cases, female orangutans have also been discovered in Indonesian brothels and logging camps being used as prostitutes.


Tigers need large areas of forest with minimal disturbance, and wildlife corridors to connect different populations. The habitat of tigers is often fragmented by clearance for plantations or by the construction of roads. This increase in habitat loss and fragmentation has promoted the poaching of tigers for the illegal supply of their body parts to international markets. The most common method of hunting tigers is through the use of live-traps and snares, which are thick wire rings that grasp tigers by their feet, often digging deep into their skin. Tigers can be trapped in such devices for days until they are found by poachers, who then proceed to shoot them. The cash value of a tiger, when broken down into its constituent parts, can reach tens-of-thousands of dollars. Therefore people struggling for their own survival will often participate in the poaching of tigers as they have the opportunity to earn many years’ worth of money in a single kill. A 2004 study estimated that some 253 tigers were killed or live-trapped between 1998 and 2002, and investigations have even found tiger parts openly on sale in cities across Sumatra. 

One of the most serious impacts of the growing fragmentation of tiger habitat is an increase in human-tiger conflicts. Rapid deforestation, human population growth and economic development within and around Sumatran tiger habitat have forced tigers into increasing contact with humans, presenting a significant danger to both tigers and people.The presence of palm oil plantations means that there is a larger population of humans in areas that were previously the domain of wildlife, and humans are considered viable prey for a hungry apex predator like a tiger. Between 1998 and 2011, a total of 638 human-tiger conflicts were recorded in Sumatra, in which tigers killed 72 people and wounded 63 more. These conflicts resulted in deaths of 59 tigers - a significant loss considering that only an estimated 400 tigers remain in the wild today.


Just as deforestation and palm oil development increases the frequency of tiger poaching, it also causes animals like the sun bear to become more accessible to wildlife smugglers. At the edge of forests bordering cleared lands, bears that may have been difficult to track in the forests suddenly become easy targets. More often than not these bears are captured and confined to cages barely larger than their own bodies, where they are milked for their bile. The bile produced by sun bears’ gall bladder is worth a significant amount of money in traditional Chinese medicine.

Cubs are also worth money in the illicit pet trade, so a mother in search of food that roams onto a plantation or cleared land offers a double cash incentive; money for her parts and money for her cub. Bear paw soup is also an extremely expensive delicacy throughout Asia, and claws and teeth are sold as ancillary trinkets. An adult sun bear also provides a lot of meat for an impoverished plantation worker.

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Impacts on People

The establishment of oil palm plantations is often promoted as a way of bringing development to poor, rural regions of Borneo and Sumatra. While palm oil production does provide employment to many people in Southeast Asia, the industry has also had devastating impacts on groups of people in this region. All too often, the government’s main interest in the country’s economy leads them to allow corporations to take the land owned by indigenous peoples for their own financial benefit. 

The palm oil industry has been linked to major human rights violations, including child labour in remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. Children are made to carry large loads of heavy fruit, weed fields and spend hours every day bent over collecting fruit from the plantation floor. Heat exhaustion and cuts and bruises from climbing thorny oil palms are commonplace in these cases, and more than often not, children receive little or no pay for their efforts.

With plantations systematically destroying the rainforest land that the local people depend on, communities are continuously finding themselves with no choice but to become plantation workers. Faced with poor and degrading working conditions, some earn barely enough income to survive and support their families. Instead of being able to sustain themselves, indigenous communities become reliant on the palm oil industry for their income and survival, leaving these villagers incredibly vulnerable to the world market price of palm oil which they have no control over.

The impacts on conflict-palm oil directly affect 27% of the Indonesian population who rely on the forests for their livelihoods. The national population is currently over 242 million and 30-40 million identify or are identified as indigenous peoples, forming upwards of 1/6 the entire Indonesian population. They are among the most marginalized groups of the country and are often taken advantage of in situations regarding ownership of their land. The oil palm plantations begin taking the place of the forests which communities have lived off for centuries and, in the process, eliminate their livelihoods and only source of income.

In many circumstances the indigenous peoples have no say in the matter of land sales and therefore no idea that their land had been sold off. They often only realize when company workers begin clearing the land, having had no prior information given to them by the government or companies.

Din Perulak, the Chief of Sumatran tribe "Orang Rimba Sumatra" said in an interview, "I am so unhappy about these gigantic new oil palm plantations. Our forest which we, Orang Rimba, have gathered fruit, which has sustained us, has completely disappeared. There are plantations everywhere. I ask you, how are we supposed to survive when there is no forest anymore?" 

There have been documented cases where indigenous people have benefited from the palm oil industry in Indonesia, however these situations appear to be less common. More often the palm oil would lead to problems for the villages who sold their land to the industry. This is the case with many small-scale farmers, but especially the case when village leaders in indigenous communities sell the land of the entire village to receive monetary compensation. This results in their land being converted to oil palm crops and subsequently leaving many people in the village worse off.

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Sustainable Palm Oil

Sustainable palm oil is an approach to oil palm agriculture that aims to produce palm oil without causing deforestation or harming people. 

Sustainable palm oil has been under fire for several years from environmentalists and organisations who feel it is nothing more than a greenwashing scheme. This view did not improve within the environmental community upon the formation of the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) in 2004, but many feel that this widely accepted certification scheme has the potential to prevent deforestation in the industry. 

The RSPO is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to unite stakeholders form all sectors of the palm oil industry, including environmental and social NGOs. RSPO is currently the largest sustainability-focused organisation within the palm oil sector, however its standards do not ban deforestation or destruction of peatlands for the development of oil palm plantations. 

Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO)

CSPO represents the certification process where palm oil growers must commit to real credible sustainability standards through time-bound plans. There is an increasing demand for palm oil that is sustainably certified in Europe and North America, including big names such as Walmart, Unilever and Nestle. As of 2011, CSPO represented over 10% of the global palm oil market but this has increased in recent years and is projected to increase in coming years. The certification process consists of reviewing existing production operations and identifying areas that must be improved to reach the CSPO standards to then be approved by a certification body. The standards are based on eight principles which have been retrieved from the RSPO website: 

1. Commitment to transparency 

2. Compliance with applicable laws and regulations 

3. Commitment to long-term economic and financial viability 

4. Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers 

5. Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity 

6. Responsible consideration of employees and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills 

7. Responsible development of new plantings 

8. Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity Because of the varying levels of sustainability and commitment by stakeholders, multiple selling systems have been created to define where certified palm oil fits in one of three systems.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

The RSPO is a multi-stakeholder organization that was founded in 2004 as a response to pressure from the negative attention the industry was getting for its environmental and social impacts. It was created by producers, civil society, governments and buyers to address these impacts and carries forth the vision to “transform markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm.” It consists of comprehensive production standard and certification system to prevent the aforementioned negative impacts and “credibly present that information to end users.” It comprises 558 members with one-third of these members representing consumer goods manufacturers but only 17% of them representing producers of the oil. 

The Good: The RSPO is currently the best sustainability and social impact standard that exists around the palm oil industry. Additionally, it has been found to be very beneficial in the long run for stakeholders who have implemented the RSPO certification standard. Finally, because the RSPO is multi-stakeholder, it includes everyone involved in the chain of production from growers and producers through to retailers and buyers and then on to members of civil society and NGOs at the very end of the line. 

The Bad: One of the main criticisms of the RSPO standard is that it still permits planting of palm oil on peatlands and cleared secondary forests. This is of great concern to environmental groups and NGOs because of the role peatlands play in storing the world’s carbon which is an ecosystem good that is completely lost following the destruction of these peatlands. Additionally, its general certification standard is often regarded as being weak and a result of the multi-stakeholder dynamic of the organization. Many varying views and opinions must be considered in moving forward with any decisions made by the RSPO, which has meant very little change in the last 10 years. This dynamic drastically slows down the pace of potential progress because the RSPO runs by consensus meaning the bar for change has to be set quite low to be accepted by all. While this progress continues on slowly as the rainforests of the world are cut down at increasing speeds, it is vital for this process to be based around multi-stakeholder consensus decision to allow all sides to move forward with a shared vision. 

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History of Palm Oil

Oil palms are originally from West Africa, but were brought to South-East Asia at the beginning of the 20th century. The primary demand for the industry's expansion came from the British Industrial Revolution. At the time, 250,000 tonnes of palm oil were being exported annually from South-East Asia. This figure has risen to over 60,000,000 tonnes today. 

Malaysia was the world's largest producer of palm oil by the mid 20th century and this stayed true until the Indonesian government began investing into the industry in the 1970s. This expansion officially pushed the country into the lead spot for top producer in 2007 and the nation now supplies the majority of the world's growing demand for this cheap edible oil. 

Palm oil has historically been recognized as being one of the world’s “major commodities”. It was brought over from Africa to Southeast Asia at the beginning of the 20th century. The initial demand for palm oil was  for use in candles and as lubricant for machinery. The invention of the hydrogenation process in Europe pushed the demand even further, and after WWII the oil became easier to transport and to use in numerous Western food products.

Export trade of palm oil expanded rapidly and from 1962-1982 world exports of palm oil rose from 500 000 to 2 400 000 million tonnes, making Malaysia the largest producer of palm oil in the world. At this time Malaysia accounted for over half of the world production and exports by the mid-twentieth century, and 85% of the world exports of palm oil by 1982. This peaked interest in the industry’s investment by the neighbouring government of Indonesia.

Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago with over 17 000 islands, once used to be  covered in tropical forests until the largest of these islands were taken over by corporations and palm oil companies with the Indonesian government’s permission. This initially started when President Suharto came to power in 1967 and made it his priority to render Indonesia a politically stable nation with sustained economic growth. While this consisted of expanding multiple industries, such as manufacture and mining, in 1968 Suharto began investing in the Indonesian oil palm sector from which its slow growth began into the 1970s.

Rapid expansion occurred throughout the 80s brought on by the global demand for the oil which Suharto believed would greatly benefit Indonesia if its production and expansion were increasingly invested in. This was because, while Malaysia was leading the way in the oil palm sector, Indonesia’s greater land area and lower labour costs would soon make the country the leader in production.

The government soon converted  several million hectares of the country’s rainforest into oil palm plantations to become the biggest global producer of the oil. Though not while Suharto’s time in office, Indonesia surpassed Malaysia in production and export of palm oil in 2007 and the industry now takes up over eight million hectares of land in Indonesia, expected to reach 13 million by 2020.

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