Palm Oil's Ecological Impact
Palm Oil's Ecological Impact
Oil palm is grown as an industrial plantation crop, often (especially in Indonesia) on newly cleared rainforest or peat-swamp forests rather than on already degraded land or disused agricultural land. Indonesia and Malaysia Palm Oil Companies have destroyed enormous tracts of tropical rainforest which contain the world’s longest lists of threatened wildlife. Of the more than 400 land mammal species of Indonesia, 15 are critically endangered and another 125 threatened. Of Malaysia’s nearly 300 land mammal species, 6 are critically endangered and 41 threatened. The numbers of threatened species climb higher when terrestrial reptiles, amphibians, and birds are included. Moreover, certain animals, such as the orangutan, are only found in these countries; when their rainforest habitat vanishes, so will they.
Five mammals exemplify the impending disaster: the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, Asian elephant, and Sumatran rhinoceros. Each of those species is endangered, with the 3 Sumatran species critically endangered. They once flourished in precisely those areas where rainforests have since been cleared for oil palm.
Oil palm plantations, along with logging, fires, and now coal mining in Borneo, destroy rainforest habitat, hinder migration patterns, and block travel corridors. Roads and plantations fragment the rainforest, facilitate encroaching settlements, and make animals accessible to illegal hunting and poaching. If they enter plantations while searching for food outside the rainforest, animals may be killed by workers. They are also at risk when plantation companies set forest fires to clear land for oil palm; some fires burn out of control, demolishing much larger areas than anticipated
Plantations also pollute the soil and water with pesticides and untreated palm oil-mill effluent, cause soil erosion and increased sedimentation in rivers, and cause air pollution due to forest fires. The demand for palm oil is forecast to double by 2020. The expected thousands of square miles of new plantings on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo could kill off the remaining orangutans, rhinos, and tigers.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, new plantations are often established in newly cleared rainforest and peat-swamp forests (sometimes with an intermediate period of logging), instead of on degraded land or disused agricultural land, such as old rice paddies or old plantations. That’s because it costs much more to rehabilitate disused agricultural land to prepare it for oil palm than it does to clear new land. A further incentive in many cases is that the plantation company can finance its new planting by logging and selling valuable tropical timber trees. Burning of logged-over forests and debris is still a widespread means of clearing land for oil palm plantations, despite the fact that Indonesia made burning illegal after massive plantation-initiated wildfires in 1997–98. Cash is recouped much faster if a company clears land cheaply by burning after logging and then plants oil palm, rather than waiting years for valuable timber trees to grow again— unlike timber, agricultural crops are short-term investments that increase cash flow quickly investments that increase cash flow quickly.
The Oil palm has been the direct cause of a host of ecological problems including deforestation; endangered wildlife species; habitat destruction and fragmentation; soil, air, and water pollution and toxic chemical contamination; and last—but certainly not least—social conflict and displacement of local communities.
Why Are Tropical Rainforests Important?
Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s tropical rainforests are some of the most spectacular on Earth and provide sustenance to magnificent wildlife— including the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, Asian elephant, orangutans, banteng (a wild ox), barking deer, giant flying squirrel, proboscis monkey, gibbons, langurs, and clouded leopard. Yet those animals are under tremendous threat, and many species face the possibility of imminent extinction. A World Bank report states that Indonesia is “almost certainly undergoing a species extinction spasm of planetary proportions.”
Most Indonesian and Malaysian terrestrial species are forest animals and can survive only in rainforest habitat, not on plantations. Once oil palm has replaced the immense variety of hundreds of species of trees, vines, shrubs, mosses, and other plants found on every acre of lowland rainforest, most animals can no longer live there. An oil palm plantation is, in effect, a “biological desert.” As an industrial plantation crop, oil palm is grown as a monoculture. Most of the other plants found are low-growing ground cover.65 Without the rainforest’s plenteous variety of fruits, nuts, leaves, roots, nectar, bark, shoots, and other plant materials to eat, most animals cannot survive. And, without plenty of plant-eating prey animals such as deer to hunt, carnivores such as tigers cannot survive either. The plantations provide habitat for only 20 percent or less of the previously resident mammals, reptiles, and birds.