Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Palm Oil Plantations

Palm oil production is the leading driver of tropical deforestation. In many places oil palms are grown unsustainably on clearcut jungle. Globally, plantations now cover about 160,000 square kilometers (62,000 square miles) of tropical landscapes, an area larger than Greece, according to the Rainforest Alliance. By some estimates, 300 soccer fields worth of land are being cleared for the crop every hour. In Borneo and Sumatra, that's wiping out habitat areas for rhinos, tigers and orangutans and driving those species toward extinction. Clearing Indonesian forests is a particular problem, because they store more carbon per hectare than the Brazilian Amazon thanks to their "carbon-rich" soils. Indonesia and Malaysia account for over 80 percent of global production. But as demand for palm oil grows, the frontiers are shifting and companies are increasingly moving into West African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Palm oil can be used in everything from cosmetics to fuel, and is cheap and efficient to produce.  It can be found in about 40 percent of everyday products on supermarket shelves, from donuts to shampoo, chips to ice-cream — and even appears in the gas tank of your car. It's commonly found in lipstick, for example, because it holds color well, and has almost no taste. Manufacturers of shampoo use it to restore oil that's stripped away by other chemicals in the product. Even bakers use it widely because it's solid at room temperature, inexpensive and easy to bake with.  Palm oil production and demand have exploded. Between 1996 and 2017 global consumption more than tripled from just over 17 million to more than 60 million metric tons. The boom is taking an environmental toll, wiping out tracts of forest to create space for sprawling monocultures.

"It creates immense pressure on land in the regions where they are grown. The pace of deforestation is blistering and it's really unnecessary," says William Todts, director of a Belgium-based nonprofit sustainable transportation organization, Transport & Environment. Land clearing for palm oil was also linked with giant fires in Indonesia in 2015 that became one of the world's biggest climate disasters in terms of greenhouse gas pollution. The fires released more heat-trapping gases than all of Germany's annual emissions from fossil fuels.  Producing a ton of palm oil requires significantly less space than producing the equivalent amount in soybean, sunflower or rapeseed. Its production contributes to gross domestic product in South Asia, Africa and increasingly South America, and fills a huge demand for cheap plant oil for cooking and fuel in developed and developing countries, including China, India and Europe.


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