Palm Oil: Issues of Climate Change and Human Rights Violations

04/06/2015 06:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

Co-authored by Theodore Andrew Lee

We often use household products without ever thinking where they come from, how they are produced, and who produces them. We live in a comfortable world where we simply go to the grocery store and buy things we need without thinking twice about their production or how they landed on our grocery store shelves. Our thoughts do not go beyond how everything is accessible, useable and available for consumption.

However, without understanding how the products we consume are derived and manufactured, we may not realize how our use of such products contributes to the destruction of the environment and negatively affecting indigenous social values by using such products. One such product is palm oil.

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. Human consumption of palm oil has increased over the past 30 years more than any other food. Palm oil is used in foods, detergents, cosmetics, and biofuels. It is found in products such as pizza, lipstick, instant noodles, chocolate, soap, cookies, and more. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) projects the demand for palm oil will double by 2020. The use of this oil has become integral in our lives whether we know it or not.

The palm fruit fuels the palm oil industry. The fruit comes from the African oil palm tree and thrives in environments with abundant heat and rainfall. The tree is grown throughout Africa, Asia, North America, and South America. However, Indonesia and Malaysia make up more than 85 percent of the production and export of palm oil.

The ever-increasing demand for this oil has led to negative consequences for our environment and to human rights violations. The palm oil industry is associated with deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses.

In order for the palm oil industry to match the supply and demand, forests are being cleared at an alarming rate to make way for palm oil production. The effects of such a metastasizing process leave the Earth in a critical condition. It is projected that all the forests in Indonesia and Malaysia will disappear in 20 years if sustainable practices are not implemented. According to the WWF, an area the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to produce palm oil. Timber and undergrowth deemed invaluable by market forces are burned in the deforestation process, which releases an excess of carbon dioxide. Also, clearing the indigenous trees results in the removal of a carbon sink which causes more carbon dioxide to be present in the atmosphere. There is already an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and this is creating a synergistic effect. The soil in Indonesia and Malaysia is vital to the ecosystem, however after clearing large areas of trees, the soil becomes prone to degradation and desertification. As a result, Indonesia is now the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

Furthermore, the clearing of forests removes a critical habitat for many types of organisms, which leads to ecosystem imbalances. A third of Indonesia's mammals are already endangered and the number keeps rising. Orangutans are a keystone species in Indonesia's ecosystems. Orangutans maintain the health of the ecosystem and many organisms depend on them. Palm oil production kills 1,000 to 5,000 orangutans annually. Without the presence of orangutans, the entire ecosystem could possibly collapse.

Children are exploited for their labor by the palm oil industry in remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. Children carry large loads of heavy fruit, weed fields, and spend hours collecting fruit in poor and degrading working conditions in order to contribute to their families.

The palm oil industry is destroying the existing economy in developing countries. Indigenous communities are becoming reliant on the success of the palm oil industry for their income and survival. This leaves the community to the world market price of palm oil, over which they have no control.

We in developed countries need to be aware of how our dependence upon palm oil damages the environment and adversely affects our sisters and brothers, particularly our indigenous sisters and brothers, in developing countries. A small, seemingly insignificant issue such as palm oil production has huge consequences on the planet for generations to come. We need to start conducting sustainable practices for cultivating palm oil!

Theodore Andrew Lee is a junior at Liberty High School, Bethlehem Pa. He is the captain of the Junior Varsity Soccer Team and plays Lacrosse for the JV Team. He is co-founder of the Robotics Club and a writer for the school newspaper. Presently, Theo is taking AP Environmental Science and applied his knowledge to the arising problem regarding palm oil.