Palm oil that rules the world

I am just two months away from visiting a place I had the chance to experience a few years ago already – the Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia. When my flight from Bali landed in Medan for the first time, I was super excited to make one of my dreams come true, to see Orang Utans in the wild. What I didn’t know back then was how endangered the fragile eco system they are living in is. Of course, I had heard about illegal deforestation because of oil palm plantations and that numbers of wild Orang Utans are decreasing rapidly, but I never really realised how bad the whole situation was until I got there.

The whole drive towards the small town of Bukit Lawang, which lies right at the edge of the National Park, was planted with oil palm trees. Hours of driving went by and still oil palm plantation to the left and right. When leaving Bukit Lawang down south to get to Toba lake, it didn’t get any better – oil palms all the way to the left and right. And this was an 8-hour drive! I think this was the first time I realised what an impact human race can actually have on nature and how capitalism makes us destroy the only planet we have without even caring about other species that we share these grounds with as long as we can enjoy our Nutella sandwich in the morning.

Another shocking experience I had was only shortly after – when visiting Kuala Lumpur. The whole city was covered in thick fog, it was literally impossible to look further than 5 meters on some days. Only that this fog wasn’t actually fog but smoke – coming over all the way from the deforestation in Sumatra and Borneo which is happening around the same time every year. And Kuala Lumpur is not the only city going through this every year. Singapore is also affected massively by the destruction of jungles, millions of years old, by being covered in thick smoke for days or sometimes even weeks. Well, to be honest, all of us are in some way.

the first Orang Utan I met in the wild

Only 7% of the world’s land mass is covered by jungles. However, there is more diversity here than in any other habitat. For example, Borneo’s jungle, which has decreased by more than half since the 1980s, is home to a wider range of plants and animals than the whole of Europe. The virgin jungle of Sumatra has even decreased by an unbelievable number of 75% over the last 4 decades. It is estimated that up to 100 Orang utans are losing its home every single day.

Orang Utans are super sensitive animals that learn really slowly. A new-born stays with its mother for about 10 years until it has learned all the skills it needs to know. Simply moving away to another area doesn’t work for them.

Who is behind all this?

The answer is simple – all of us. We consume palm oil on a daily basis. It is a large part of most sweets we consume such as peanut butter and Oreos. Oil palm is so popular because it can be harvested all year around and it is growing on a small surface compared to other crops. So, actually a great thing. The only problem here is that oil palms are only growing in certain areas of our planet and that’s exactly the places we find the virgin jungles.

Why isn’t the Indonesian government taking action?

Well, officially it might be doing exactly this. In reality corruption and illegal burnings are big players in this game. Large parts of the virgin jungles are part of National Parks. But then again foreign and local companies are paying off people in charge and give them employment to get them give away their land. It’s a difficult circle to break – money can be a big motivator, especially for people living in rural parts of countries like Indonesia. A lot of western countries rely on Indonesian resources, not only when it comes to palm oil. Large parts of West Papua are being exploited for gold and copper mining while local communities are being suppressed. There is just far too much money involved for most people, making them switch off their conscience. But the corruption in this country is such a big topic that goes back decades, I will write about it in a different blog post.

What can I do to help?

I know that there is little I can personally do about this issue. To fight illegal deforestation shouldn’t be in our hands but in the hands of a non-corrupt government. We can all support organizations that try to protect national parks and its inhabitants. We can all be a bit more conscious about what we consume. We can’t bring back what’s already gone but we can at least help to decrease our own palm oil consumption so maybe one day illegal deforestations are not worth it anymore. Check the ingredient lists of what you are buying. All cosmetic products at Lush and Body Shop are free of palm oil, as well as Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream for example. Considering it is estimated that we will double the production of palm oil by 2030 and even triple it by 2050 – every little bit count each of us does counts.

Iceland is so far the only country in the world that is actually trying to officially do something about this. After the releasing of an ad from an Icelandic food store during last year’s Christmas season, there was a lot of talking about this issue. Unlike the feel-good ads most consumers expect at this time of the year, this ad rejects fun and promotes the stores commitment to removing palm oil completely from its own label food. Long story short, this ad was banned because of being “too political”.

I am going back to Sumatra with mixed feelings. On the one hand I am obviously super excited to be in the jungle again, hopefully spotting some Orang Utans. On the other hand, I am concerned about how much worse the situation has gotten with time. I will update you guys in June!

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