Singapore has been subjected to a — hopefully finished — period of dense haze over the last 3 weeks caused by fires in the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. At the same time even more fires were affecting dramatically the island of Borneo on its Indonesian side (Kalimantan). Whilst Singapore had its pollutant index reaching above 300 on a 24 hours average a level qualified as “Hazardous” by the Singapore’s NEA (National Environment Agency), Borneo was seeing indices up to 2’000!
Head image: Juvenile Orang Utan, image created on 5 June 2014 at the Conservation and Rehabilitation Center of the Rasa Ria hotel in Kota Kinabalu on Borneo (Malaysia). Canon EOS 5D Mark III with Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 800, Evaluative metering
The fires are due to slash and burn practices and linked to the culture of palm oil. Though illegal, they are a problem in South-east Asia since more than 40 years, occurring every year. Causing international tensions between Indonesia and its neighbours of Malaysia and Singapore, they represent a high human and health cost and are an environmental armageddon. But why are they still happening?
Greed and corruption could be the simple explanation, and thus probably is, as the fires are the most economical way to dispose of the old palm trees for the companies exploiting the plantations. At times, like this year because of El Nino which caused a drier than usual season, the fires get out of control and destroy the neighbouring forest: “Oops! Sorry about that, we won’t do it again. Look, now that the forest is destroyed, can we plant more palm trees from next year?”, “Sure! Where is my envelope and I’ll amend your concession paper”. At other time, it’s the neighbouring plantation that gets burned, insurance premium must be for something! In the meantime labour needs for the plantation will decrease as new tree will take 3 years before maturity. In years like this one where thousands of trees and likely hundreds of plantations have been destroyed, one can only anticipate a future depressed labour market in areas already poor.
The plantations, which are an ecological burden the whole year long as the trees require constant water and fertilisers, become a true catastrophe when in fires, contributing to deforestation and loss of habitat for the indigenous wildlife, stressing an already stressed ecosystem, and feeding the atmosphere with carbon monoxide and dust with their known consequences.
Why all this? well for greed and — maybe — corruption to a larger scale. Our modern world at large requires much palm oil at all cost… as long as it’s cheap. Palm oil is heavily used by the food industry to replace other oils with a cheaper alternative and thus increasing profit in the whole sector.
As an example, the cocoa seed contains oil and solid. Solid is what makes chocolate, solid and oil is what makes good chocolate, solid and palm oil is what makes cheap chocolate. Yes indeed, cocoa oil is more expensive than palm oil… Ever wondered why Nutella contains cocoa solid and palm oil? Same as Mars bars or many Nestle products, and even if these companies are branding the “sustainable palm oil” argument, they still use it. First and foremost because palm oil is cheap!
It is not only about chocolate products, palm oil is also used as cooking oil; think about potato chips or pre-cooked oven fries… and unfortunately, in many countries palm oils are labeled as “vegetable oil” and thus less noticeable to the aware consumer.
You’d say well, palm oil is cheap so what’s the problem? If what you read so far didn’t hint you that something is seriously bad about its production, you may want to consider its health risks. Wikipedia says about palm oil that
its overall health impacts, particularly in relation to cardiovascular disease, are controversial and subject to ongoing research
young readers might not know it but this sounds very much like the 80’s and 90’s arguments about cigarettes: when for each scientific study demonstrating the danger of cigarette smoking, the tobacco industry was financing ten studies demonstrating either the opposite or raising doubt about the study. Its a technique where even the most honest member of parliament will have difficulty to form an opinion about the risk and benefit of a product…
To summarise: palm oil is an environmental catastrophe, the source of economical enslavement of poor communities, a profit enhancer for large food conglomerates and possibly harmful for your health.
I’ve been coughing for a couple of weeks now, one visit to the ER, I can tell you that smokes from palm trees plantations are not good… I hope you might have found the hints that reducing your palm oil consumption is not just good for me, but maybe for you too!