The demand for palm oil is burning Indonesia, quite literally. A CNN Special Report takes readers into the jungles of Borneo, where illegal fires have destroyed the landscape reaching all the way to Malaysia and even Singapore. “People are choking. Animals are dying. This is no ordinary fire. It was lit for you,” writes the authors. What do they mean it was lit for me? These annual infernos, according to experts, have ignited a “climate bomb.” And until Western consumers say stop, the fires will continue to burn.
In order for you to have your margarine, or whatever product you use that has palm oil in it (the list of products with palm oil in them is enormous, accounting for approximately half of all supermarket products), the oil needs to be created. The world’s demand for it has created a need for palm oil plantations in Indonesia. The fastest way to make space for these plantations is to burn down the jungles. These fires in Indonesia are producing some of the world’s worst pollution. Clearing the rainforest to make way for plantations has also destroyed natural habitats for endangered species. Add into this mix that most of these rain forests are covering peat soils and the drainage of the peat swamp forests is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
Brands use palm oil in their product because it is the cheapest of all vegetable oils. Pressure from large supermarket chains for low priced products, especially cooking oil, doesn’t really help matters either.
These fires are centered around Indonesia, which supplies more than half of the world’s palm oil. Each of us is estimated to consume 17 pounds of it per year. It’s used in a lot of the products that you buy at the grocery store — some ice cream, soap, cereal, candy bars, etc. In less than 20 years, Indonesia’s palm oil exports numbered in the billions of dollars — $20.7 billion in 2017. It is Indonesia’s #1 exported product.
The fires have gotten so bad that an oxygen house has been opened. People use oxygen and doctors screen which ones need it or who needs another type of advanced medical care. Many of those needing treatments come from small villages.
“This summer, nearly 920,000 people were treated for acute respiratory problems caused by the fires, according to the Indonesia’s disaster agency,” CNN reports.
Even though it’s exposing many to severe health risks, palm oil is exposing them to something else as well: wealth.
“Years ago, many here did not have cars and their children did not go to school because they couldn’t afford to pay school fees,” Village chief Surya Emi Susianthi told CNN. “But after growing palm trees, they can buy cars, build good houses and put their children in school.”
Another use of palm oil is in the fuel industry. What? Fuel? Palm oil can be used for biodiesel. The problem is that biodiesel from palm oil creates 3 times more carbon emissions than fossil fuel diesel if you add in the environmental costs of making it. If you really want to help the planet when driving, switch to electric vehicles, not biodiesel.
Our demand for palm oil is literally killing people half a world away from us. When you shower with your favorite soap or you use your favorite chocolate-hazelnut spread, think about where it came from. I’m not saying this to make you feel bad, but to simply make you aware. As consumers, we often don’t think twice about where the products we buy come from. We don’t think about the lives that our purchases impact — whether for their good or ill. We just load up our carts, make our purchases, and go about our days. We are affecting lives every time we do that.
I actually had a moment in which I met someone who was related to the Cruzan rum family — her daughter’s brother in law is the master distiller and she intentionally buys Cruzan to support the family. As I held that bottle of rum in my hand, I realized then that there are livelihoods that depend on our purchases. Perhaps we can be better consumers when we consciously make shopping decisions that empower those who make the products — not the corporations, but those who corporations buy from at wholesale. If we, the Westerners that were mentioned in an earlier paragraph, started making more purchases that double as powerful statements to those making the products, countless lives will be changed for the better. It’s something to think about, at least.