It all began with the orangutans. Oil palm plantations ate their way across South-East Asia and into their habitat. Now, it is the great apes of Africa that will be facing the same deadly threat. Palm oil has come to Africa.
There is a thirst for palm oil, the cheap oil, one so great that this deadly oil is found in 50% of our household products; chocolate, popcorn, soap and cosmetics to name just a few.
“If industrial palm oil plantations come to western Africa, I don’t know if conservation can succeed there. At some point, the whole system will just fall apart,” said Joshua Linder, a primatologist at James Madison University. The oil palm is native to Africa, but the craze and ferocity of development of plantations came from Asia.
Currently, a third of all mammal species in Indonesia are considered to be critically endangered due to the unsustainable palm oil growth. In the last 20 years, 90% of the orangutan habitat has been destroyed. Between 1,000 and 5,000 orangutans are killed each year. If the orangutan is the face of the destruction by palm oil, then the rainforest is the body. Deforestation for palm oil has significantly contributed to climate change. Indonesia has become the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world as it burns its way through its rainforest. There are 300,000 different animals in Borneo and Sumatra and they are killed, injured and displaced when the rainforest is cut down. Roads slash through the rainforest. Where the animals were once safe, there is now a direct path for the poachers and wildlife smugglers to capture or kill wildlife to provide for the medicine market or as status symbols.
The bonobo and chimpanzee are endangered and the gorilla is critically endangered. Could they suffer from the effects of oil palm plantations? The orangutan will be extinct by 2023 if nothing is done.
The large oil palm companies promise development, to alleviate the poor from the grips of poverty. All too often, these indigenous people are lead into the dark demise of the loss of their land. Child labour has been linked to the palm oil industry. Without any alternative, the indigenous people turn to jobs on the oil palm plantations themselves.
‘Oil palms are tropical trees and thrive in rainforests, some of the regions on Earth with the highest biodiversity. To make room for these plantations, vast areas of rainforest are felled, which leads to primary and secondary loss of species. Some species die off right away, either because the plants are removed or because they’ve lost a place to live, eat, and mate. Other species losses take more time and occur due to landscape fragmentation.’ – The Daily Beast. Small patches of forest are left. Safe havens. However, they are really the death blow. Most animals are reluctant to cross the fields between these patches, leading to a loss in genetic diversity and eventually the collapse of populations as few can survive on such small islands of life.
Associate Professor Lian Pin Koh, a conservation biologist with the University of Adelaide said,”In a way the growing of oil palm is very good for Africa because it will help in building their economy,” says Koh, who was a co-author of the study. “But from what we have learnt from South=East Asia and the environmental damage there, we are now very worried about the extension into Africa.”
“As the farmers and big companies encroached into the forest, these orangutans had nowhere else to go… there were many instances where orangutans were poisoned, shot or chased out of the plantations,” says Koh. “We do not want to have history repeat itself.”
A study published in Current Biology showed that 42% of suitable land for growing palm oil is found in the great apes habitat. More worryingly, 60% of land given to companies occurs in the great ape habitat. 99% of the bonobos habitat is suitable for growing palm oil. The chimpanzees, western gorillas and bonobos will face the brunt of this offence.
Southeast Asia is saturated with palm oil plantations and Africa is in sight, the great new frontier .
Researchers are offering and suggesting to improve the yield of oil palm on those plantations already operating in Africa and reduce the growth of oil palm plantations.
“Consumers can be proactive and go online and look up where their products might be coming from. They can help put pressure on the oil palm industry to move towards more sustainable production practices,” says Koh. Palm oil is a more efficient source of vegetable oil than say, soybeans or rapeseed and it would be hard to avoid it. What is needed is for more sustainable palm oil plantations. Sustainable oil palm plantations are defined as those that are grown without causing deforestation or harming people. However, this has been criticised as a greenwashing scheme.
In Cameroon, Herakles Farms, a US company, is planning to tear down 300 square miles of rainforest where local cocoa, cassava and vegetable farms are found, on which people depend. People will lose their land and their homes. If Harakles’s oil palm plantation is allowed to proceed, it will majorly impact 45,000 indigenous people in 88 villages.
Oil palm is like a deadly cancer; spreading quickly, manifesting itself all over the world and it’s killing the hearts of the rainforests of the earth. There have been enough victims.