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Palm Oil from Freshly-Burned Land: Coming to a Grocery Store Near You

Nithin Coca headshotWords by Nithin Coca
Leadership & Transparency

Indonesia's fires – driven by deforestation and 100 percent human-caused – are, without a doubt, the biggest environmental disaster of 2015 -- emitting a massive amount of CO2 into the atmosphere and decimating one of the world's top three most dense, biodiverse tropical forest regions. Now, Greenpeace Indonesia drones found that land burned in the past few weeks is already being turned into palm oil plantations on the island of Borneo.

“These fires are one of the worst disasters ever to hit this country. It is unthinkable that anyone should be allowed to profit from such a crisis," said Annisa Rahmawati, Indonesia forests campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, in a statement. "Someone is already trying to exploit this fire by establishing an oil palm plantation."

Sadly, this comes as no surprise. It was clear from the get-go that the fires were directly connected to Indonesia's palm oil industry, which, for years, has been using fire as a tool to clear land to turn into plantations.

Why palm oil? To meet massive demand for cooking oils and biofuels from overseas, including here in the U.S.

Remember all the uproar about hydrogenated oils a few years ago? For a whole host of good reasons, companies began to replace these overly-processed, potentially dangerous ingredients from processed foods. What did they choose to replace it with? Palm oil, the cheapest non-hydrogenated oil on the market, with the vast majority of it coming from Southeast Asia.

Even today, when the fires and haze are making headlines across the globe, and the habitat for endangered species such as orangutans is shrinking, numerous international corporations are refusing to put into place common-sense, sustainable palm oil sourcing requirements. One of the most egregious violators is PepsiCo, which, according to the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), is far from ensuring its palm oil isn't coming from recently illegally-deforested land or plantations that exploit workers.

"PepsiCo has failed to set a deadline for breaking the links between its products and companies that are destroying rainforests and peatlands, and abusing human and labor rights," said Gemma Tillack, agribusiness campaign director for RAN.

Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo, took a bold step earlier this week, announcing that he would no longer allow for any planting on peatlands, the most flammable and unsustainable regions to put palm. But Greenpeace noted that any government commitment needs the backing of companies to make any meaningful difference.

“President Jokowi’s landmark decision to ban peatland development is a first step toward a cleaner, brighter future for Indonesia’s people and environment," said Yuyun Indradi, forests political campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia. "It sets the bar for meaningful commitments from world leaders to tackle the root causes of climate change at the Paris climate summit. Companies must work together with the Indonesian government to implement these decrees and ensure they stop doing business with any company that continues forest and peatland destruction.”

It is time for the palm oil industry – and the companies that use palm oil in their products – to change their priorities. As we head toward the Paris climate talks, the role of companies in helping promote the global change we need to build a sustainable future is clear. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture is often cited as a strong, first step we can take to quickly reduce global carbon. Indonesia's fires are the top source of those emissions, and we need to see companies leading the way on this.

The last thing we need is palm oil from freshly-burned lands in products from PepsiCo, Nissin, and other companies with lacking supply chain policies. Enough is enough.

Image credit: Glen Hurowitz via Flickr

Nithin Coca headshotNithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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