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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: To understand why we justify it.
    You need to learn a little bit about "Cognitive Dissonance", or about (social) psychology!
    Here's a great book on the matter :
    "Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts"
    http://www.amazon.com/Mistakes-Were-Made-But-Not/dp/0156033909
    However it is worth mentioning that I view it is probably because the trees aren't viewed as human (nor conscious creatures), so we (some may view that) don't have much of a moral duty towards them. Another possibility is that we are more "present orientated", rather than "future orientated" so we don't see the harm in doing something which may harm us in the future. Another being that there is probably a conflict of interest considering that we have made a system where people get paid for such acts, and that you can gain more money quickly by exploiting it. Therefore there is a sense of "conformity" to group norms (regarding capitalism).
    There are a diversity of reasons as to why...
    • May 30 2013: The book you suggested looks relevant. Makes me recall the Prisoners Dilemma, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/prisoner-dilemma/
      This game theory describes how individuals faced with the choice between liberating themselves now at the expense of everyone later will trump the choice to make a small personal sacrifice, which if all players reciprocate leads to liberation for all players eventually. This sad paradox is what happens in situations where the greed of a few overarches the struggle of many. It's the notion that, someone is going to exploit palm oil, so I might as well be that one even if no one else benefits and there is no rainforest.

      Another part of this is that the generations that will we be hurt most are not yet living (our grands). So it harder to feel a moral obligation to someone who does not yet exist than it is to feel morally obligated to oneself or children who are hungry today.
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        May 30 2013: I agree.
        However it is worth noting that humans do (sometimes) not have the "willpower" (or motivation) to do what is right and good. Considering this can be observed in many studies. Take the "Obedience experiment by Stanley Milgram". No one thought they were capable, yet 90% did it.
        I take this with regards to the environment. Many preach about how we "should" help (sorry to personify) the environment, yet many actually do! Yet I am willing to stand corrected on this point.
        I believe a TED Talk (which may help) is :
        "Dan Ariely: Beware conflicts of interest"
        http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_beware_conflicts_of_interest.html
        Also (if you don't mind) this also may be worth the watch :
        "RSA Animate - The Truth About Dishonesty"
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBmJay_qdNc
        With these it might give you a good idea as to why people may exploit the environment, and still think they are the good guys... (A long with that book I told you about!)
        Hope I helped!
        Kind regards,
        Bernard.
        • May 30 2013: I watched both the TED talk and the Animate. Dan's point about our actions being shaded by incentives, incentives that are constructed by social structure, is a very valid perspective regarding the palm oil question. Thank you for sharing this Bernard!

          I also read a bit about the social psych theory of cognitive dissonance. If I understand it correctly, this theory posits that when we find ourselves deciding between our value system and wanting for something, we alter reality in our minds in a way that allows us to rationalize taking what we want, despite much evidence that doing so is against our value system. Often this involves intentionally avoiding being educated about how the thing we want goes against our values.
          To illustrate, I'll tell on myself. I ate a Girl Scout cookie. Because I thought it looked yummy and it would help little girls get patches on their uniforms. Mounting evidence suggests that the ingredients in these cookies are bad for me. Further, the environments and people in the regions from which these ingredients come (including palm oil) are threatened by this. I was able to slide these facts that go against my value system under the rug by justifying eating a cookie on the grounds that my wife bought them, not me, The cookie was not tasty and afterward I felt guilty and sick to my stomach. However, I can't promise that it won't happen again.

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