Palm Oil, Orangutans, and What the Heck are you Eating?

     Palm oil has become a scourge that humans have inflicted upon this planet. And its fallout is due as much to human overpopulation as it is to pure greed. What, you may ask, is palm oil? It is a cooking oil. It’s also used in many processed foods. Palm oil comes from the fruit of a very specific palm tree. And it’s cheap. It is also high in saturated fat. So why is it spreading like a bad rumor? Let us repeat. It’s cheap. Oh, one other thing; it’s evil.

     It grows in tropical areas. So do rainforests. So do animals that live in the rainforests. And so, worldwide, do human populations. Palm oil producers like to make money. Indigenous peoples who live in the rainforests are not worth much money. Neither are the animals. As for the forests themselves, their wood is worth a lot. It’s a perfect fit. Clear cut the trees, plant the oil palms, screw the local peoples, orangutans, rhinos, horn bills, and proboscis and red langur monkeys.

Palm oil plantation
Indonesian palm oil plantation. Photo:

     Big oil (no, not that “big oil”) companies, like BW Plantations, are especially fond of Asian Pacific locales like Borneo and Java in Indonesia to plant their palms. Indigenous tribes that depend on the forests are left out in the cold, free to look for menial work where they can find it. The plantations are so insidious that they can even threaten protected national parks.

     The winter 2012 edition of Panther, the periodical of the Rainforest Action Network, reports that Tantung Puting National Park in Borneo is being traumatized by encroachment of palm oil plantations as well as illegal mining and logging operations. With little or no buffer left around parts of the park, “The drainage canals along the edge of the plantations were filled with the dark black water of dissolved peat soil – highlighting the troubling reality that much of this plantation is on carbon-rich peat soils and thus emitting massive amounts of CO2 as it rots . . . It seemed the Indonesian law prohibiting conversion of deep peatlands was being violated.”

     In one instance, when BW Plantations cut down a community’s native rubber trees last year, it triggered a demonstration. Police arrested no one in spite of the fact that the company co-opted 5,300 acres of community land. The local community sent formal letters of complaint to the company, as well as the district, provincial and national governments. At the time of Panther’s publication there was no response and demonstration resumed..

     So, you may ask, how does this relate to overpopulation? There are more people than ever on the earth. Most of them use edible oils. Palm oil is now the most widely used. Other popular oils include soybean and corn. They are much less unhealthful than palm oil. Several Latin American countries, including powerhouse Brazil, have jumped into the soybean market, exporting their soy oil to Europe, China and other countries. But these Latin American countries don’t have clean hands in this process. Brazil is well along in decimating its own rainforests, savanna and jungle habitats with farms of various types, often displacing its indigenous communities with both lawful and unlawful development.

     In other words, these countries are doing what the United States did a long time ago when it displaced the Midwestern forests, prairies and Native Americans with large-scale corn and soybean farms.

     As a recent article on put the question, “So should food processors use palm oil from Southeast Asia or soybean oil from Brazil?” While soybean oil is much less detrimental to health than is palm oil, the destruction of native habitat and indigenous human environment can be equally tragic.

     The most immediate need, of course, is for developing countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil to wake up and protect their primitive habitats. But as long as the world does not get the concept that there are way more than enough of us, we will continue to foul our own home. How sensible is that?


  1. Soybean oil is nasty stuff, it is not worse for you than palm oil and in fact palm oil is one of the better plant oils you could eat. That doesn’t mean you -should- eat it, due to the environmental impact, but don’t muddle it up by acting like it’s a health thing.

    • Jack:
      We’re a bit confused by your comment. You say soy oil is nasty but not worse than palm oil. Then you say palm oil is one of the better oils. It seems self-contradictory. Can you elucidate?

Speak Your Mind