Don't turn a blind eye to what's in your food - it could be killing elephants

| 30th June 2013
palm oil
Palm oil is a key ingredient in everything from cereal, biscuits and margarine to shampoo, lipstick and toothpaste. Unless we curb our desire for it critical forests and wildlife habitat will be gone forever, says Dan Bucknell

From the minute we have breakfast to the moment we brush our teeth and go to bed, the vast majority of us will be consuming palm oil without even realising it, or realising the damage to the natural world that this is doing. Palm oil is a key ingredient in everything from cereal, biscuits and margarine to shampoo, lipstick and toothpaste. Our insatiable demand for these products is ripping the heart out of Asia’s forests and driving critically endangered animals to extinction. 

This includes the Sumatran elephant, the most endangered of all the world’s elephants. With barely more than 2,000 left in the wild, forest clearance has already halved their population within one generation. Roughly 85 per cent of their habitat lies outside protected areas, mostly in the lowlands and gentle hills that are the first to be cleared for logging, mining, and paper and palm oil production. As the forest disappears, elephants take to the palm oil plantations and farms, bringing them into conflict with people. 

The consequences are alarming: between 1984 and 2009, approximately 700 elephants were captured and placed in captivity. Most would die, until Elephant Family stepped in with the Veterinary Society for Sumatran Wildlife Conservation to transform their lives. Many others have been poisoned, the most recent being two found dead in Tesso Nilo National Park, Riau Province on 3rd June; they are thought to have eaten rat poison from a palm oil plantation nearby. 

The equally tragic story of Raja the baby elephant is just the tip of the iceberg that threatens to sink the Sumatran elephant. The Ecologist Film Unit came across him recently while documenting the Sumatran elephant’s demise with Elephant Family; he was being held hostage by villagers demanding compensation for their loss of crops to elephants. He died a week ago despite our best efforts to rescue him. 

These elephants might still be alive if their habitat had not been cleared so that we could have palm oil. Addressing this is not straightforward however. Palm oil is not often declared in lists of ingredients, but is hidden as a generic 'vegetable oil', or as one of its many derivatives, such as sodium laureth sulphate in personal care products. 

Elephant Family was a key member of the 'Clear Labels, Not Forests' coalition that in late 2011 secured a new EU regulation requiring all vegetable oils to be labelled individually. This finally allows shoppers to make informed choices about what they buy, and to then push food manufacturers and retailers to support the transformation of the industry towards fully sustainable palm oil. However, the regulation does not come into effect until 2015, and while many have already made the required changes to their labelling, it is simply too long to wait to save Sumatra’s forests.

How sustainable?

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up in 2004 with a view to introducing and implementing global standards for the production of sustainable palm oil - with the engagement of all stakeholders. 'Certified sustainable palm oil' is now available – complete with logo – but the sustainability criteria are far too weak, and it is coming from producers whose operations may only include a small percentage that are considered sustainable, while the rest are contributing to deforestation. Products bearing the RSPO’s logo will most likely contain palm oil from various different sources, including plantations that have displaced important rainforest.

The certification scheme is flawed and misleading. Until it is far more rigorous or an alternative is developed, consumers can only be sure they are not part of the problem if what they are buying does not contain any palm oil at all. 

Otherwise the forest destruction continues. Singapore is currently engulfed by smog created by the burning of Sumatra’s forests ready for palm oil production. And the Indonesian government is close to adopting a new land-use plan for Aceh Province that would make hundreds of thousands of hectares of its forest available for palm oil production, as well as logging and mining. It would also legitimise illegal deforestation that is already taking place. 

Aceh is the Sumatran elephant’s greatest remaining stronghold, and the only place in the world where elephants, orangutans, rhinos and tigers can all be found. Environmentalists and earlier land-use proposals have recommended that 68 per cent of Aceh be classified as protected forest areas, while the new ‘spatial plan’ has that figure reduced to just 45 per cent. That’s a difference of about 12,000km2, a combined area of forest greater than the size of Yorkshire that it is threatened with destruction. 

The spatial plan would not only be a disaster for the wildlife, but also the local people that depend on the forest for their way of life. The loss of forest will push elephants into conflict with them and expose the area to dangerous landslides and flooding that can – and do – wash away whole schools, rice fields and villages. 

We are urging everyone as consumers not to turn a blind eye to these issues, to be far more circumspect with what they buy, and to get behind our campaign to stop Aceh’s spatial plan from going ahead.

Dan Bucknell is head of campaigns and communications at the charity Elephant Family

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