What do a chocolate bar, a tub of beauty cream, and a gas station have in common? The answer, surprisingly enough, is deforestation and the gradual extinction of orangutan species. All of them increasingly use a product called palm oil, which is grown in the hot and humid tropical regions of Malaysia and Indonesia. Because of its growing use around the world, governments and corporations see it as a much more profitable use of land than the existing rainforests and wetlands – and so the orangutans’ natural habitat is chopped down, replaced by rows and rows of carefully guarded palm trees.
But it’s not just our close relatives the orangutans who lose out from the palm oil trade. Deforestation and wetland destruction on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra releases tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change – the destruction of these rainforests is responsible for 3% of all the greenhouse gas emissions in the entire world. Much of the forest is cleared by burning, which creates a hazy smog that affects human breathing as far away as Singapore. And local indigenous people have the land they’ve used for centuries snatched from them so that it can be converted into palm.
In a recent interview with National Geographic, the sustainable development consultant Robert Hii also noted that few of the economic benefits of palm oil make it into local hands: “I have personally seen situations in which landowners are promised good income, roads, hospitals, and schools in exchange for their land rights and properties,” he said. “Unfortunately, I see more complaints about how few of these promises have materialized”. The whole system is designed to create losers – rainforest people lose their land, people in the west lose their health from eating too much saturated palm oil fat, and we all lose the healthy climate we need to survive. And all for the benefit of just a few winners.
So if palm oil is so bad, why is it in our chocolate, our ice cream, our beauty products, our biscuits, and even our fuel? Quite simply, the answer is – profit. Palm oil is cheap, much cheaper than the alternatives, partly because it’s grown on rainforest land that is seen as having no real value to global capital. Changing to a safer, cleaner, more environmentally friendly and sustainable form of nutrition and fuel is not even an option for many companies – because it would reduce their profits. Changing to production methods that would help people live in dignity and provide fair and equitable distribution of wealth is a definite ‘no’ – because it would take money away from governments and corporations, the winners of this economic system.
NRGLab takes a different approach to these issues, recognizing that what happens in the Southeast Asian rainforests affects us all. We want to take a different approach to energy, but also to economics – making money work in the best interests of people and the planet and turning the current losers into winners, rather than just focusing on the bottom line and encouraging destruction in the name of profit. If you think you have the skills to help us in our mission, get in touch.
Article prepared by Annie J