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Why is Palm Oil Bad for the Environment?

Sucheta Pradhan
Among the 17 major edible oils and fats produced globally, palm oil has one of the highest consumption rates. It also has a plethora of uses. However, extensive plantation of oil palm can have a devastating impact on the environment. Here's how palm oil can be bad for the environment.

A Fiery Fact...

According to a report published by the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry and Estate Crops, the famous Southeast Asian wildfires of 1997-98 were set by oil palm plantation companies.
Also known as dendĂȘ oil, palm oil is an edible vegetable oil produced from oil palm. Other than being a cooking ingredient, this oil can be used for making almost everything from soaps to cosmetics to bio fuel.
More importantly, it is comparatively cheaper than most other edible oils available in the market. All these factors contribute to the high demand of palm oil throughout the world. Today, selling and exporting palm oil is one of the primary sources of income for thousands of farmers residing in West and Central Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia.
However, recently, environment agencies throughout the world have been critical of oil palm plantations, as there is clear evidence that these plantations are causing harm to the environment.
Despite several measures to curb the degradation caused due to oil palm plantations, it is unfortunate that they continue to pose a danger for the environment and the various ecosystems therein.

Palm Oil Plantations and the Environment

As much as 85% of palm oil is produced in the tropical countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea. In fact, Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil in the world, followed by Malaysia. Majority of these countries have large-scale industrial plantations of oil palms, wherein it is grown only for commercial purposes.
Despite being one of the most important commercial resource for thousands of farmers, these plantations pose an immense threat to the environment and ecology. Here's how palm oil is bad for the environment.

Destroys Rainforests

Owing to the ever-increasing demand for palm oil all over the world, there is also a rising need for more and more land for the plantation.
So, to acquire the additional land, tropical rainforests are being destroyed on a huge scale and are being converted into massive plantations, thus affecting their biodiversity. Unfortunately, the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, which are the most biologically diverse forests in the world, are the worst affected.
According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), published in 2007, about 98% of Indonesian forest would be destroyed by 2022, due to various reasons, one of the major ones being oil palm plantations. Added to this, burning of forest trees to make way for these plantations leads to massive air pollution.

Water Pollution

Sometimes, due to poorly enforced environmental legislative policies, oil palm plantations tend to encroach areas surrounding the riparian zones.
Riparian zones are regions lie along the margins of rivers and/or streams. Proximity of plantations and processing units to the water sources leads to the discharge of harmful pollutants such as palm oil mill effluent (POME), thus affecting the ecosystem. As per the reports, in Malaysia, POME is the single largest source of industrial wastewater pollution.

Contributes to Climate Change

The tropical rainforests are essentially peatlands, which contain more carbon per unit area than anywhere else on Earth. These serve as storehouses for the greenhouse gases, which can contribute greatly to climate change.
When rainforests are burnt or cut down to make way for plantations, exceptionally large quantities of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere, thus directly affecting the climate.

Causes Soil Erosion

Clearance of forests for planting oil palms causes the erosion of the topsoil. This further tends to increase if no buffer zones of the rainforest are left along the riparian zones.
This is because, in the absence of buffer zones, the topsoil gets carried away directly into the water. Though illegal, it is a fairly common practice in Indonesia to clear the rainforests without keeping any buffer zones.

Contributes to Habitat Loss

Conversion of tropical rainforests into plantations has a devastating impact on the various species of plants and animals which inhabit these ecosystems.
Many species of animals have been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Moreover, the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran rhinoceros and the Sumatran orangutan have been declared as critically endangered species by the IUCN.
Apart from the environmental impact mentioned earlier, oil palm plantation also has a social impact. Most importantly, it adversely affects the rights and livelihoods of the local and native people who are obviously ignored owing to the economic benefits of setting up a plantation.
This can create major conflict between the palm oil companies and local communities. There have been several reports of forceful land acquisitions from various regions.
Considering the harm caused to the environment, some producers decided to go green. It was decided to avoid deforestation as far as possible and to cultivate oil palms on designated lands, where they can be planted and replanted repeatedly. The palm oil produced thus, is called 'sustainable palm oil' as it complies with all the environmental standards.