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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 30 2013: Thanks for the point LaMar.
      You prompted me to do a bit of digging on outreach programs presently active in this area. To my delight I found several on short order, here are couple of major outreach organizations in this area:

      Nestle caves to pressure from activists: http://news.mongabay.com/2010/0517-hance_nestle.html
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      May 30 2013: Actually a personal consequence of buying palm oil is adding to climate change. While most of us won't suffer immediately like those that live in the habitat, the clearing and burning of forest for palm oil plantations contributes to increasing CO2 emissions which affects everyone worldwide.
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        • May 30 2013: LaMar, your point about product replacement may be valid where consumer choice is concerned. One of my concerns in raising this question was that people all empathize differently, so how do I capture a broad audience? For instance, while one person may feel more compelled to save primates, another may be more concerned about climate change or indigenous people's rights. My hope was that was that we could address a general theme playing out in the world. That is that criminal exploitation of resources for products that are not necessary, are occurring today at the expense of all creatures both today and tomorrow. And if we value all creatures and life in general, how is it that we justify destroying that for some crap product with corn, soy, or palm , etc. as filler in it? Are we inherently bad? Or are we capable of justifying just about any decision we make, despite our value system? Chances are, most of us intrinsically don't want everything beautiful and ecologically valuable to die. But, we do want soap, butter, and fuel. So why do we avoid educational information, go against our values and make these choices?
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          May 30 2013: Hi LaMar,
          I think that Nick's comment supports your original point about education and promoting awareness with media.

          While some people are very detached from where their food comes from, there are others that try to be conscience consumers, and more information is becoming available about how food affects our carbon foot print. So, some people might actually be able to connect palm oil to climate change, and begin to actively exclude it from our diets.

          this is an article about a restaurant that just opened in NY with carbon counts on its menu, and I know they have been doing this for some time now in Sweden
          Carbon Footprints, Life Cycle Analysis, Food Miles: Global Trade Trends and Market Issues

          As for corn, we have to choose our battles. At least this shift to Oregon is US farmers effecting their own environment, and it can be better regulated. Herakles is a US company trying to exploit a resource in a foreign country while displacing many local people. I have a larger problem with that.

          and why not cut down consumption of both?
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          May 30 2013: I don't think palm oil would simply be replaced. Palm oil is one of the few crops that are grown successfully over the long term in the tropics because it is a tropical tree. Many other crops do not grow well in tropical climates over the long run because the nutrients in the soil were tied up in the rainforest. When the forest is loss, the nutrients are lost, which forces farmers to seek new land after only a few crop seasons.
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          May 31 2013: yeah I agree, shifting profits from one corporation to another is no way to solve a problem, and your skepticism is definitely warranted. I feel like the more I learn about where our food comes from, and what corporations have their fingers in, the more I am in disbelief or outraged. I am lucky to finally have the opportunity to live in a home with a garden, and am excited to learn and start growing some of my own food!

          I am not holding the megaphone, but I am definitely trying to be more responsible about the resources I utilize and the products I purchase.
          Every little bit helps right
          ....and yeah the US is not doing a good of leading by example, could we ratify they Kyoto treaty already!
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          May 31 2013: The focus of this problem is the protection of endangered wildlife, not a vendetta against one company. Simply search palm oil crisis in Asia and you will come across dozens if not hundreds of articles depicting what has happened to the wildlife there. The expansion of large companies into Africa to develop palm oil plantations is relatively new, but starting to increase. Fortunately, there were some NGO's and researchers working in this region that were made aware of the plans to develop the palm oil plantation in the beginning. Through much research, they were able to understand the background of Herakles and their owners, as well as monitor the "promises" they were making to local people to see whether they followed through on them.

          As far as the other comments, I think that many of these large, wealthy countries are hypocritical. But understand that often the voices that are seeking change from these countries in Africa or Asia aren't the governments but the NGO's operating within them.
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          May 31 2013: Well not to mention that corn is subsidized by the government. http://cornsubsidies.com/ I don't disagree with your comments about biofuel, but corn is also used in a lot of foods as high fructose corn syrup, and like palm oil, companies try to find ways to incorporate it into their over-processed foods in order to increase shelf life and include cheap ingredients. If corn wasn't subsidized so heavily you can imagine that farmers would grow other crops and maybe corn wouldn't be utilized so much in process foods. And instead of feeding our cows corn (http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/ansci/beef/as1238.pdf) we should focus on natural diets.

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