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Robert Steury

Undergraduate Researcher - Microbial and Molecular Pathgenesis, University of Oregon Institute of Ecology and Evolution

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How do we justify consumption of palm oil? What can we do to stop palm oil companies from destroying the African rainforest?

The Consequences of the Palm Oil Industry and African Primates

Primate communities in the African rainforest provide many ecosystem services and they are a critical source of protein for rural human populations. But primates are severely threatened by many activities including logging, development, agriculture, and overhunting for bushmeat and trophies. Rural Africans have little power (less than 2% of the rainforest is publically owned) over land that is increasingly sold to private companies by their governments.

Government of Cameroon recently offered Herakles Farms the use of 300 square miles of rainforest land at 50 cents per hectare per year, with exemptions; it even gave the company the power to "search, apprehend, detain, exclude, and evict” anyone trespassing on their leased land. The American corporation that promised to build sustainable development for local villages in the region started building roads and nurseries before any agreements were official. After 13 months, villagers realized Herakles didn't live up to their promises, so they seized the company’s equipment and nurseries. Now they await their government’s decision whether to allow Herakles to proceed or not. If Harakles’s oil palm plantation is allowed to proceed, it will majorly impact 45,000 indigenous people in 88 villages.

Africa is the next prime target of palm oil development. If this happens, Africa will likely experience the same fate as Asia in regards to deforestation and primate decimation. So, why palm oil? Palm oil is primarily used for household products. It’s farmed due to its low cost, superior production, low space requirements, and the promise of generating jobs. However, in light of the social and ecological impacts of palm oil farms in Africa, should these justifications satisfy consumers of palm oil products? Can consumers make decisions (e.g. petitions and product research) that will empower the indigenous peoples of Africa and protect the remaining biodiversity?


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    May 29 2013: One thing that I really didn't think about in relation to palm oil is its use as a bio-fuel. Palm oil can be used to make biodiesel which is increasing in demand around the globe. An interesting point was mentioned on this greenpeace site http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/forests/palm-oil that the efforts to reduce carbon emissions by using biodiesel in the form of palm oil might be harm the environment more than using fossil fuels.
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      May 29 2013: That also seems to be true for the use of corn as a biofuel. I remember learning in my undergrad ecology class that some types of corn biofuel use more energy in the production then they themselves produce as fuel and it seems more and more that using corn as a biofuel contributes to drastic increases in corn prices and even shortages for people who need corn as a food crop. The article in the NYT outlines problems Guatemala has faced as more and more of the farm land in Guatemala is used to grow corn for export as biofuel. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/science/earth/in-fields-and-markets-guatemalans-feel-squeeze-of-biofuel-demand.html?pagewanted=all
      It seems to me that with biofuels we have to get more creative then we have been if we really want sustainable energy.
      • May 30 2013: You guys touch on a good point. The ecological crisis has generated a new market for the energy and fuel industries. This process of finding new energy technologies to solve the ecological dilemma is a learning process, to be sure. Unfortunately, some players have a large profit incentive clouding their objectivity when it comes to the scientific facts. Thanks for the input.
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      May 30 2013: I think biofuel isn't really the way to go because it involves too much energy in its production or in the case of palm oil, the loss of biodiversity and rainforest habitat. If you are able to access this article (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10531-008-9512-3) it provides an alternative approach at valuing orangutan habitat while offering a unique conservtaion strategy.
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      May 30 2013: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1755-263X.2009.00059.x/abstract;jsessionid=6596433C91A732A42560C43344EB235D.d02t04?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

      Link to another article that highlights the alternative approaches that can be taken to profit from rainforests without destroying them. While these articles focus on Asia, they have relevance in Cameroon and Africa because this region of the world is often looked at as the new frontier for palm oil development.

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