The palm oil industry is known to destroy the habitat of orang-utans - but it's also a vital source of income for local communities. Photo by Vanessa Forrest
Recently I volunteered in an orang-utan sanctuary in Borneo. As well as those rescued from the pet trade and entertainment industry, sanctuaries are home to many orang-utans that have been left homeless by deforestation to make way for the palm oil industry.
My time there was equally fulfilling and heartbreaking. They are amazing creatures and you cannot help but be struck by their intelligence and ingenuity. I gained so much from my interactions with them but I was always aware that their lack of freedom was as a result of human activities.
Before going to Borneo I had seen campaigns and media about the negative effects of the palm oil industry and was appalled by the the environmental destruction and loss of habitat for animals such as orang-utans. Much lesser known, is that forced and child labour can also occur in palm oil production.
The reach of this destruction is incredible. Palm oil is found in thousands of everyday products. From cleaning products, to toiletries like shampoos, conditioners, cleansers and moisturisers to food items such as chocolate, cakes and cookies. It is hiding in such a wide range of products (about 10% of all household products) and takes a really concerted effort to locate as it is most often simply listed as “vegetable oil” . This is a particularly broad and unhelpful phrase that can mean anything from local sustainably sourced canola oil to palm oil from an illegal plantation or anything in between.
Fortunately certified sustainable palm oil is now available. Consumers can look for goods that proudly use RSPO certified palm oil – but the number of companies using this more sustainable source is still very limited.
Seeing the extent of the destruction this industry has caused, I expected that the local community would share my outrage for the situation. So I was surprised that most of the locals I talked to seemed to have a positive view of palm oil. Many people I met told me their own story about palm oil and how planting their small piece of land had helped them to support their family. For many this hadn’t previously been possible as employment opportunities on Borneo are very limited, even for those with a good education.
This was reinforced by labels on supermarket item announcing that that they were “Proudly made from Borneo palm oil”. I was initially surprised to see these labels and hear such positive perceptions about palm oil as it was in such contrast to the views I’d been presented at home.
So where’s the balance between these two competing perspectives?
Using sustainable palm oil means that there is still an opportunity for people to earn an income through its production but without the environmental destruction that can occur with unregulated production, or the risks of forced or child labour.
At the moment about 15% of palm oil is sustainably sourced, but increased demand on companies to be more transparent about their use of palm oil by customers will help increase the demand for more sustainable palm oil. And this in turn will increase the supply of it – meaning more farmers and producers – and the land they live on – will be respected and treated fairly, ensuring a better future for all. People and orang-utans.