Palm oil is everywhere these days. It’s in chocolate, in crisps, in sweets, in beauty products, in soaps… and most of the time we don’t even know about it because we don’t read the tiny letters on the tiny little space of packages. Many people use it without even intending to do so.
However, there are also many people who have realised the devastating consequences of using palm oil during the past few years. There have been articles and videos about it, demonstrations, a few companies have already stopped using it…
All of these hints or direct messages have showed me that palm oil is bad. And it is. I’ve known it for years. I’ve known that rainforests are being destroyed because of it. I’ve known that it causes global warming along with other industries. But I’ve never actually understood how it really works and why. Why do they have to destroy rainforests in order to grow palm oil trees? And why are palm oil trees so bad?
I didn’t know. Until I participated in a Czech project Green Life (see my post VOLUNTEERING IN INDONESIA – GREEN LIFE). I took a plane, I flied to Sumatra and I spent two weeks in a rainforest. And I finally learnt about palm oil trees and plantations. Ali, a chief of YHUA (which is an Indonesian non profit-making organization, just like Prales Dětem – all of the land is bought on his name, as strangers cannot buy land in Indonesia, and he then rents it to Green Life), explained it to us and answered all of our questions.
SO WHY ARE PALM OIL TREES SO BAD?
The fundamental problem is that palm oil trees are like a disease (or, a more accurate comparison – like dementors). They suck the life out of everything around them. More specifically, they suck too much water from the ground and so there is no water left for other forms of life in their vicinity. Nothing can grow around them. As a result, there aren’t any animals as this piece of land doesn’t provide them with food.
To sum it up: when there are palm oil trees, there is almost no life.
And so if you want to have a palm oil plantation and there’s no more land, you go and destroy the jungle. I think it wouldn’t be that much of a problem if those plantations weren’t so huge. But they are. They stretch across the whole Sumatra. On our way from the national park Gunung Leuser to the docks in Singkil, we saw almost nothing but palm oil plantations. And it was a twelve hour ride.
And why are these plantations so large? Well, because there is a high demand for palm oil in the western countries. In our countries. If there was no demand, there would be no reason for growing palm oil. It’s as simple as that.
Another problem is that palm oil trees not only suck too much water from the ground, they also kill it. Permanently. They live up to 50 years (I think there can be 2 generations, one takes 25 years and another one takes 25 years). And that’s it. After those 50 years, you can no longer grow palm oil trees due to the profound damage of the land. But that’s not the only problem.
You cannot grow anything on that place. And nothing even grows on its own. The land is dead. There can be no more trees, no more plants, no more life. It’s dead forever (or at least for decades or centuries but I’m not so sure about this).
Ali told us that it’s also an economic problem because you need many people to help with caoutchouc plantations (which aren’t good as well but it’s better than palm oil) but you need only a few ones to help with palm oil plantations. That makes the owner much richer but it also causes higher unemployment.
People believe that it’s also easier to grow palm oil trees since they don’t have to collect it every day (as with caoutchouc). They collect it once in two weeks and there’s a lot of it, so when they sell it, they get more money at once and they consider themselves to be richer than they would be with caoutchouc plantations. But it’s just about the feeling of having more money at once, really.
“They’re in the sky, they think ‘I have lots of money’ but they don’t think, really. They don’t understand.”
They don’t understand that in a few decades, they’ll have no money and a dead land. What do you do then? They’ll have to start from a scratch. But will there even be more land which they can grow something on? Those large plantations that you can see in the whole Sumatra will be dead. Useless.
BUT WHAT WOULD INDONESIA DO IF THERE WAS NO DEMAND FOR PALM OIL?
According to Ali, there are many solutions. Those can be found in the form of other kinds of plants. These plants don’t hurt anything around them, they can grow anywhere and there’s even a demand for them. You could grow them behind your house or close to the jungle but you wouldn’t need to burn it or cut it down. We could leave the jungle alone.
And these plants are for example: coconut trees (the best thing about them is that you can use every single thing from the tree – the wood, the coconut itself, the leaves can be used as brushes and when the tree isn’t as big and there’s only a small plant, you can extract red sugar from it), turmeric, ginger, coffee, potatoes (people in big towns have a problem with diabetes because of the high consumption of rice and so instead of rice, they eat these potatoes), cocoa… there are many possibilities. It only takes a bit of fantasy and less laziness.
The fact is that if we stopped using palm oil, people from Indonesia would stop growing it. They would stop destroying the rainforests. They would stop killing wild animals and their home. They would stop damaging their land. They would have to find a new solution and there are plenty of them.
I hope you’ve found this post useful and if you have more informations on this topic, please comment below.
btw. the photos I’ve used are not mine (except for that one with Ali)