TED Conversations

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 31 2013: Can consumers make decisions (e.g. petitions and product research) that will empower the indigenous peoples of Africa and protect the remaining biodiversity?

    You know what the simple answer is NO.

    It's been the same since diamond mining, yet people still use them for engagement and wedding rings.
    It's been the same since gold mining, yet people use them for adornments to make them look pretty.
    It's been the same since oil mining, yet people use them for outdated and inefficient modes and of transport, let alone the makeup they use to make themselves look pretty.
    It's been the same since metals mining, yet people still get their iphones and accessories, with wanton disregard.

    And palm oil, is just another in a litany of minerals that have been 'mined' from Africa with no regard for the biodiversity, which conversely and ironically may be our salvation, as nearly all drugs to all diseases are first synthesized from plant life.

    But it's all about making money, and only when we realize that there is something more valuable than that, will we never change.
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      May 31 2013: Well said Tify. Sadly, we often don't see the value in something until it is gone. I think a big part of the problem is that there are just too many people. So any positive impact that comes from responsible consumerism is still off set by large masses of people that are not aware a problem exists.
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      May 31 2013: If you haven't checked it out already, the TED talk that Robert provided by Jason Clay offers a hopeful approach, by focusing on increasing the sustainability of production in 100 large companies instead of consumerism. While it is still focused around these companies being able to continue making money, it did appear to have some promise for decreasing the loss of biodiversity and forest degradation. I found it really interesting.
    • May 31 2013: Tify, you may find it ironic that in the National Geographic's coverage of Chimpanzee conservation in Borneo, the reporter ends her rant against palm oil and deforestation by stating that the solution is to get a hypothetical future Bornean boy an iphone. Because he is entitled to one after enduring all the abuse from palm oil companies. I found it to outrageous!


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