What’s the issue?

Oil palm monoculture plantation is linked to a plethora of environmental and social issues.

Environment 

In order to convert the forested land that is rich in biodiversity, mass clearing is carried out, often by the ‘slash and burn’ technique; a technique in which natural vegetation is logged with the remaining vegetation subsequently burned. Deforestation remains at astronomical rates, with the equivalent amount of forest to 300 football fields being cleared every hour.

This deforestation and burning of the land is completely unsustainable, giving rise to many detrimental impacts on the environment, both locally and globally. Such issues include those associated with loss of peat land, air pollution, soil erosion and habitat destruction.

Peat land 

  • Draining and converting peatland has detrimental effects not only due to their role as carbon sinks, but in making the land more prone to fires. Peatland store more carbon per unit area than any other ecosystem in the world and over a period of 20 years a new oil palm plantation will store 50 to 90% less carbon than the original forest cover.
  • Not only are peatlands major carbon sinks, but provide other vital ecosystem services, such as water regulation and biodiversity conservation.
Air pollution 
  • Like peatland, smoke pollution from burning forests releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, whilst the drastic loss of forest coverage results in less oxygen release from trees. This not only has a local impact, but a global one too, thus largely contributing to climate change.

Habitat destruction and biodiversity loss

  • The land conversion of forested land to oil palm plantations not only destroys habitats, but is responsible for unprecedented biodiversity loss (in SE Asia), putting many species such as the Asian elephant on the endangered list, whilst species such as the Javan and Sumatran Rhino and the Sumatran orangutan remain critically endangered. For example, around 2/3 of Sumatran Tiger habitat loss from 2009 to 2011 can be attributed to palm oil, and without major changes, it is estimated that the Sumatran Tiger will be extinct in less than three years.
  • Roads are built nearby palm oil plantations in order to allow easy access. However, this makes species more exposed to poachers.
Soil and water pollution
  • On release, effluent from processing palm oil in mills results in freshwater pollution – ‘for every metric tonne of palm oil produced, 2.5 metric tonnes of effluent are generated from processing the palm oil in mills’.
  • Moreover, inappropriate use of pesticides and fertilisers pollute soil, surface water and ground water.

Society

Despite providing employment and boosting the national economy in the two major producing countries (Indonesia and Malaysia), palm oil has a nasty side, with the following among the many issues:

  • Human rights violation (e.g. child labour)
  • Displacing indigenous communities
  • Animal cruelty (in 2006, at least 1,500 orangutans were clubbed to death by palm oil plantation workers)
  • Health issues (haze produced by the fires pose serious health problems to people throughout SE Asia as well as the plantation workers being exposed to hazardous chemicals)
  • Freshwater pollution as a result of palm oil products can affect  downstream biodiversity and people
  • Low wages leaving many unable to support their families

The above is only a glance into the reality of the social issues associated with palm oil production. Evidently, there is a plethora of both environmental and social issues associated with palm oil production and this is why sustainable palm oil production is so important.

 

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