The palm oil tree is only grown in tropical climates. It offers a far greater harvest at a cheaper cost of production than other vegetable oils and is extremely lucrative. As a result, the global production of and demand for palm oil is quickly growing. In the past 40 years, the cultivation of vegetable oil crops has increased faster than any other food or agricultural crop. Palm oil makes up more than 30 percent of all vegetable oils in the international vegetable oil trade with more than 50 million tons created annually (Ji-Sun Kim, 2015; Kaye, 2016). The palm oil tree is used largely for cooking in developing countries. It is also contained in approximately 50 percent of packaged foods on supermarket shelves (Bone, 2016; Slater, 2017; Blackwell, 2018). Plantations are spreading across the world, this growth, however, comes at the expense of the original forests – which are homes for many endangered species and sustenance for many forest dependent communities (Butler, 2011; World Wildlife Fund, 2018; Gonchar, 2017; Cormack, 2016; Beans, 2014; Ebong, Owu and Isong, 1999).
Traditionally, the production of palm oil was produced in West Africa. These days, palm oil production is an industrial scale process. It is grown through various parts of Africa, Asia, North America, and South America and poses significant environmental risks (Colchester, 2010 in United Nations Environment Program, 2011). Contemporary palm oil agriculture involves large mono-crops and is generally characterized by low canopies, minimal undergrowth and an abundant use of fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and pesticides (Fitzherbert et al. 2008 in United Nations Environment Program, 2011). The alteration of natural forests results in increased destruction of habitats and loss of biodiversity. Abiotic edge effects include susceptibility to wind, dryness and incidence of fires (Danielsen et al. 2009 in United Nations Environment Program, 2011). Furthermore, the progression of palm oil manufacture tends to decrease the quality of water and soil (Fitzherbert et al. 2008 in United Nations Environment Program, 2011). From an ecological perspective, palm oil monocultures result in a greater likelihood of plants developing diseases and form impermeable barriers to species migration. Also, as palm oil plantations contain less biomass, and have more succinct lifecycles than natural forests, less carbon is sequestered. The drainage of peatlands for conversion to plantations also significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (United Nations Environment Program, 2011).
While palm oil plantations do not use excessive amounts of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers in comparison to other crops, inevitably, the pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers and that are used wash away, contributing to eutrophication of bodies of surface and ground water and effecting the quality of drinking water and aquatic plants, animals and bacterium negatively (World Wildlife Fund, 2018; Dislich, 2016; Kemp, 2012). While surface and ground water bodies are negatively affected by an excessive richness of nutrients, in contrast, copious amounts of nutrients are lost from the soil. This occurs during the establishment of plantations because of forest clearance and the increased soil leaching that follows. Substantial quantities are also lost from established plantations through harvest and elimination of palm biomass and leaching (Dislich et al. 2006).
Based on estimates from erosion models, soil loss from palm oil plantations is approximately 50 times more than in natural forests, which generally have extremely low sediment loss annually. Most soil losses happen during the establishment of plantations when the land is scarce and greatly exposed to wind and water erosion, it can also be triggered by unsuitable tree arrangements. In addition, land-clearing blazes can cause sediment to become water repellent, which increases surface run-off and soil erosion. Soil erosion can cause flooding and silt deposits in rivers and harbours. Furthermore, eroded areas need more fertilizer and other treatments; thus, the cycle continues (Brown and Jacobson, 2005; Raynaud et al. 2016; Hackett, 2018). While soil erosion rates decrease as plantations age, even in more established plantations the canopy is often broken by infrastructure, such as roads (Dislich, 2016).
In addition to eutrophication, other causes of reductions in water quality is due to palm oil mills themselves. For every metric ton of palm oil that a mill produces, it generates 2.5 metric tons of effluent. It is the combination of liquid waste with cooling water that creates palm oil mill effluent (POME). The release of this effluent is responsible for polluting freshwater sources, which affects downstream biodiversity and reliant local communities both. Alternatively, if the effluent is not released, it is reserved in lagoons, which generates a bio-gas that contains about 65 percent methane and is one of the most toxic greenhouse gases (Brown and Jacobson, 2005).
According to Raynaud, et al. (2005), out of all forest deforestation, the deforestation for palm oil plantations experienced the greatest biodiversity losses. There is a lower richness of species in palm oil plantations than in natural forests, including wood-inhabiting fungi, litter invertebrates, dung beetles, ants, amphibians, lizards, birds, and mammals (Dislich, 2016; Fitzherbert et al., 2008). In fact, when natural forests are cleared for palm oil plantations, only 15% of their animal species can subsist. In 2014, Savilaakso et al (2014) reviewed 9,143 articles and conducted a meta-analysis on 25 relevant articles and discovered that less than 40% of invertebrates and 20% of vertebrates are shared between palm oil plantations and the previous ecosystem (Raynaud, et al. 2005).
Re-establishing these forests could bring back local plant life, but the local species will be forever lost. Biodiversity loss in palm oil plantations is due to loss of habitat, altered habitat characteristics, and the eradication of species that are considered pests (including orangutans, elephants, and tigers) (Brown and Jacobson, 2005; Dislich et al. 2006; Fitzherbert et al., 2008). Palm oil plantations have succeeded in hindering the migration patterns of specific species and split up populations from one another. Compared to even heavily logged natural forests, palm oil plantations are biological deserts. The only species that survive these disruptions are different in many of the traditional traits that the species once had. Due to the loss of traits, these species now cannot fit in to their original environmental niche, travelling to other niches instead and driving out other local species from their ecosystem (Kemp, 2015; Butler, 2011). It creates a cycle of destruction, not only destroying the first ecosystem, but causing residual damage in other ecosystems (Raynaud, et al. 2005)
The animal most often connected with the loss of habitat caused by palm oil plantations is the orangutan. According to GreenPalm, in 1990 there were 315,000 wild orangutans. Currently, there are less than 50,000. Those that have survived are separated and only have a small chance of surviving in the long-term (Shreeves, 2018; El-Achkar, 2017). If orangutans do not die in the infernos lit to clear forests, they are displaced from their homes and struggle to find food. If they seek sustenance from the plantations, they are considered agricultural pests and slaughtered (Shreeves, 2018). Orangutans are often killed from machetes, guns or other weapon attacks, starved to death or buried alive. Often, mother orangutans are slain, and their offspring are taken to be sold as pets; used for entertainment in tourist parks; or sent abroad to live a life of abuse (Hackett, 2017). The orangutans though, of course, are not the only species that suffer when forests are cleared. Tigers, rhinoceros and elephants, birds, bugs, snakes and other creatures, as well as copious amounts of plant species also suffer (Shreeves, 2018; World Wildlife Fund, 2018; Hackett, 2018; Butler, 2011; Brown and Jacobson, 2005; Silvalaakso, 2014; Vijay et al., 2016; Sheers, 2012; The ICUN Red List of Threatened Species, 2017).
Re-establishing natural forests could bring back local plant life, but the local species will be forever lost. Ecosystems may not grow, and species could not repopulate. Deforestation of peatland is a major contributing factor. Peatland is a swampy environment that many of these rain forests grow in and contains decomposing organic matter that contributes to its high carbon content. As natural carbon sinks that keep carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere, undamaged peatlands are essential to the lessening of global warming. When peatland is drained for deforestation the remaining oxygen will react with the organic compounds that were decomposing in the soil, and form CO2. Due to how expensive converting old farms and already logged lands to plantations is, companies instead light fires to clear areas, which speeds up the conversion of oxygen to CO2 (Brown and Jacobson, 2005). This method is particularly destructive for peatland, not only releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, but destroying the composition of the soil and the accumulated microbial populations that have been existing there for hundreds of years (Dislich et al. 2016). Annually, the burning of peatlands for palm oil plantations is responsible for 4 percent of global greenhouse emissions and 8 percent of all global emissions (Raynaud et al. 2016; Doom, 2012; Bloom, 2012; Rosenthal, 2007). These emissions take a huge toll on the atmosphere, accelerating the effect of global warming. This will eventually lead to an uninhabitable Earth (Berstein, Wong and Lewis, 2018).
The burning of peatlands releases carcinogens and toxic gases, decreasing air quality. The fires that burn peatlands create visible hazes in the air. Levels of pollutions were recorded at over 2000 on the Pollutant Standards Index (300 in considered ‘hazardous’) in the 2015 haze crisis. During this time, there were more than 500,000 cases of respiratory illnesses reported. Pollution has the potential to cause long-term health problems and increase rates of mortality (Raynaud, et al. 2016; World Wildlife Fund, 2018; Dislich, 2016; Butler, 2011; Gonchar, 2017). As a matter of fact, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (n.d.), in Southeast Asia alone over 100,000 human casualties were correlated with exposure to particulate matter from landscape fires.
Deforestation not only contributes to global warming and poor health, however, but also, as aforementioned, has the potential to destroy essential eco-system services such as quality water and fertile soil. This leads to the loss of farming and other livelihood opportunities for local communities, for example, fishing or hunting for food (SPOTT, 2016). Moreover, for those who undertake work in palm oil plantations, they are often faced with a severe breach of labour rights, including child and forced labour, and a lack of occupational health and safety, for example exposure to toxic herbicides, insecticides, and other pesticides (Raynaud et al., 2016). Workers are often subjected to poor living conditions with no access to basic amenities such as clean drinking water or lighting. They also tend to lack any form of social support or are isolated due to cultural barriers. They may suffer abuse, be threatened with deportation, or have their pay confiscated. Furthermore, multiple cases of human trafficking have been identified in which workers passports and other official documents are taken and they are not provided proper employment contracts (Slater, 2017).
In 2014, the US Department of Labour listed palm oil as one of the most infamous trades for forced and child labour (United States Department of Labour, 2014). Workers frequently arrive with a substantial debt and are notified when they arrive at worksites that they are answerable to all costs of transportation – this includes the transport costs of arrival. Additionally, employers habitually withhold passports and other documentation. Debt peonage is another regular occurrence, where workers are required to reimburse employers for their accommodation and food at inflated rates. Workers are also frequently expected to pay for necessary safety equipment, for example, gloves and goggles. In many circumstances, the living conditions of workers can be likened to being held captive. According to the Rainforest Action Network (2013) 70 percent of the palm oil workforce in Malaysia are undocumented migrants, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. It is estimated that there are around 100,000 trafficked labourers in Indonesia and Malaysia alone (Hill, 2014; Amnesty International, 2016).
As aforementioned, producers of palm oil often use monetary penalties when workers make errors or fail to meet unobtainable work targets. Consequently, laborers often recruit their children and partners to join them in the fields to avoid financial penalty. It is estimated that in Malaysia alone between 72,000 and 200,000 children are working in palm oil plantations (Slater, 2017). Children aged from 8 to 14 years of age have been witnessed working twelve hours a day in extremely harmful conditions (National Geographic, 2016). They are often forced to carry loads of heavy fruit, weed fields, and spend elongated periods picking up fruit from the plantation floor. They are likely to experience heat exhaustion as well as suffer injuries from climbing thorny palms. To circumvent being liable for turning a profit from the exploitation of children, companies do not recognize children as workers on record, therefore, the children collect minimal or no wage for their arduous work (Slater, 2017). In addition, there is a disconcerting secondary effect on children trafficked into plantations. In the regions of Riau Province in Sumatra, and West Papua Hill, both dominated by the palm oil industry, it has been identified that many children are subjugated into prostitution (Hill, 2014; Amnesty International, 2016).
Regarding occupational health and safety issues, as aforementioned, the palm oil industry uses various fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and pesticides. One most frequently used chemical is the toxic herbicide paraquat dichloride. In a study of plantation workers conducted by non-government organizations (NGOs) in Malaysia extensive pesticide poisonings and issues correlated with paraquat were confirmed. It was reported that several workers had acute symptoms of paraquat poisoning, including nosebleeds, irritation of the eyes, loss of nails, and ulcerations in the abdomin (Brown and Jacobson, 2005).
In addition to the above impacts on humans, palm oil plantations often result in the displacement of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous people generally do not have titles for the land where they have lived for generations, and villagers are frequently pushed off the land when the government gives it to palm oil companies (Kemp, 2018; Brown and Jacobson, 2005). This can result in conflicts between local communities and corporations over land rights. Conflicts can also transpire between communities and migrant workers (SPOTT, 2016).
If local people manage to stay in their communities they are faced with food insecurity and a lack of other ecosystem resources such as construction materials, fuel wood, resins, and rubber as well as a range of medicinal products. These ecosystem resources are particularly imperative through periods of crop failure. The loss of these resources and forest agriculture due to conversion of natural forests to palm oil plantations has had an extremely negative impact (Dislich et al., 2016).
Palm oil plantations do not only negatively impact on the local environment, forest inhabiting organisms and local communities, however. They also negatively impact on the global market of consumers. The monocultures that we consume necessitate abundant use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides to keep them alive. Diversifying these crops would result in less use of chemicals, and thus healthier soils, healthier plants, healthier non-human animals, and in sequence, healthier people. These variables are all interconnected. What is good for the soil, is good for us too (Pollan, 2007 in White and Heckenberg, 2014). However, the “economic forces that underpin bio-piracy, bio-security and bio-insecurity alike are precisely the forces that work most assiduously against biodiversity” (White and Heckenberg, 2014). They work contrary to the interests of humans, the environment and non-human animals. Proceeds are prioritized over people and ecological sustainability. The result is a never-ending cycle of transnational environmental harm (White and Heckenberg, 2014).
Palm oil has been at the centre of several health concerns in recent times. When fresh, palm oil comprises of numerous properties beneficial to health. Palm oil is an excellent source of carotenes, as well as vitamin E, vitamin K, squalene, phytosterols, flavonoids, phenolic acids, glycolipids, and coenzyme Q10. When palm oil is refined, however, and especially if it is refined heavily at temperatures above 200 degrees Celsius, it becomes oxidized. According to the European Food Safety Authority (2016), in this state it is more carcinogenic than any other vegetable oil (European Food Safety Authority, 2016). After it is oxidized, it increases in toxicity and is high in saturated fats (El-Achkar, 2017; Amerman, 2017). Consumption of saturated fats has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, strokes, weight gain and other chronic diseases (Brown and Jacobson, 2005; Marchione, 2015; Ebong, Owu and Isong, 1999). Furthermore, it has been found that once oxidized, palmitic acid found in palm oil, boosts the spread of cancer through CD36 – a protein in cancer cells that takes up fatty acids. (Mancini et al., 2015; Marchione, 2015; Aguiar, 2017; Dedman, 2016; Rochmyaningsih, 2017).
In summary, palm oil production is extremely lucrative, and palm oil plantations are spreading across the world, this growth, however comes at the expense of the original forests, which are homes for many endangered species and a sustenance for many forest reliant communities (Butler, 2011; World Wildlife Fund, 2018; Gonchar, 2017; Cormack, 2016; Beans, 2014; Ebong, Owu and Isong, 1999). Deforestation of original forests results in a loss of biodiversity due to a loss of habitat, altered habitat characteristics, and the eradication of species that are considered pests (Brown and Jacobson, 2005; Dislich et al. 2006; Fitzherbert et al., 2008). Palm oil production tends to decrease the quality of water and soil due to excessive use of fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, as well as through the release of POME (World Wildlife Fund, 2018; Dislich, 2016; Kemp, 2012). Even if POME is not released, the alternative is the incineration of plant matter which releases particulates into the air and causes methane emissions as it decomposes (Brown and Jacobson, 2005). Furthermore, the erosion of soil is common during the plantation establishment stage due to wind, water, or the unsuitable arrangement of trees. Additionally, land-clearing blazes can cause sediment to become water repellent, which increases surface run-off causing soil erosion. Roads and other infrastructure are also partly responsible (Brown and Jacobson, 2005; Raynaud et al. 2016; Hackett, 2018). Deforestation of peatlands is another tremendously harmful element of palm oil production as it results in less carbon being sequestered. Peatlands work as natural carbon sinks that keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. When peatland is drained for deforestation the remaining oxygen will react with the organic compounds that were decomposing in the soil, and form CO2. This releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions (Raynaud et al. 2016; Doom, 2012; Bloom, 2012; Rosenthal, 2007). This can cause long term health problems and increased rates of mortality (Raynaud, et al. 2016; World Wildlife Fund, 2018; Dislich, 2016; Butler, 2011; Gonchar, 2017). It is not just the destruction of habitats and the resulting pollution that impacts on the health of human-beings, however. Palm oil consumption has been the centre of several health concerns including heart disease, strokes, weight gain, and other chronic diseases (Brown and Jacobson, 2005; Marchione, 2015; Ebong, Owu and Isong, 1999). Furthermore, palmitic acid, which is found in palm oil, has been shown to increase the speed of cancer spreading (Mancini et al., 2015; Marchione, 2015; Aguiar, 2017; Dedman, 2016; Rochmyaningsih, 2017). What’s more, the palm oil industry often employs workers that are faced with severe breaches of rights including trafficking, child and forced labour, occupational health and safety, poor living conditions and debt peonage (Hill, 2014; Amnesty International, 2016). Additionally, disputes frequently occur between local communities and these migrant workers or the corporations they work for due to the displacement of Indigenous people over land title (SPOTT, 2016). It is evident that the production of palm oil has had disastrous consequences upon humans, eco-systems and nonhuman environmental victims alike.
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