Some Thoughts on Palm Oil in Indonesia

by Ben Ripple, Co-Founder of Big Tree Farms

Slash and burn agriculture practices have been part of Indonesian traditional farming for centuries. Small farmers cut brush and burn the remnants to prepare for new plantings just ahead of the rainy season. But in the last 3 decades, opportunistic plantation owners have started practicing the same slash and burn techniques on a massive scale; most often for opening new land for palm oil plantings.


Fires in Indonesia by CIFOR

Photo by Rini Sulaiman/ Norwegian Embassy for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). www.cifor.org


At Big Tree Farms, in our cacao farming division, we have a wonderful staff member named Eviandi who was once a palm oil plantation manager in Kalimantan and has since become a full and true convert to organic production. Eviandi explained regretfully the process their team followed in order to reach the minimum land clearing “goals” set by their company’s management:

“ The problem wasn’t money…it was time. Time was
not our friend. We had so many hundreds of hectares
to clear each month. We had to meet the goals or we
would be punished. We rented helicopters and poured
tanks of fuel down over the forest areas and then lit the
whole block. It burns so fast in the dry season. We always
hit our goals.”

Sickening but probably not far from the status quo faced by many staff members of palm oil plantations. The results of this environmental catastrophe have been increasingly disastrous as the global demand for palm oil accelerates and “forces” plantation companies to expand ever more rapidly across critically important environments such as primary forest and carbon-rich peatlands. More land being burned, more species being threatened, more communities being displaced- an environmental Armageddon in the back 40.

This year has seen one of the worst and most prolonged periods of burning ever, thanks to rising demand, El Nino weather systems and perhaps (if I may be so bold), climate shift. This trifecta of conditions has made for rapid land clearing, drought conditions which turn scrub brush into tinder and fires which quickly blaze out of control. The resulting smoke (called “The Haze”) has covered not only Indonesian skies, but neighboring Singapore and Malaysia as well. The Haze is thick and unrelenting and in some areas air-borne particulates from the Haze have reached so high on the global Pollutants Standard Index (PSI) that the air is over 20 times more dangerous to breath than the level classified as Unhealthy; so dangerous that many children have died, over 10,000 cases of respiratory infection have been reported and the Indonesian government is preparing navy ships and ferries to evacuate families from the environmental war zone. This is really happening.

Haze in Indonesia

Photo by Rini Sulaiman/ Norwegian Embassy for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). www.cifor.org

Now I’m sure we’ve all heard that palm oil is bad. And we likely have seen articles linking the acceleration of palm oil demand to global climate change, loss of rainforests and extinction of critically endangered species. I am sure that many of you reading this actually try hard to avoid purchasing products that contain palm oil (very difficult), but even for me, an organic farmer and father of two gorgeous young daughters living on the island of Bali, smack dab in the middle of Indonesia, sometimes the direct lines between palm oil and my daily life can seem distant. I know the destruction of rainforests needs to stop and I want to support the preservation of habitats for the many endangered species and traditional communities at risk in this environmental crisis, but there is a feeling of defeat that can well up in me when I think of the sheer magnitude of systemic evil which seems to me to be at the heart of conflict palm oil.

So you can imagine how my heart swelled up with pride earlier this week when those two beautiful daughters of mine came home after school and told me that they were going to support a solution to the palm oil crisis. Kids at school (boys and girls) were shaving their heads in an action they called “Stop the Haze”; it was an act of positive dissent they said, to make people think constantly and remember the cause every time you look in the mirror. And they also stated that the solution was incredibly simple: learn to buy only products that don’t contain palm oil. Make it fun; search the aisles and make lists of brands and products which are going without palm oil. And then consolidate those lists together online with other supporters. It was a great and powerful reminder to me that every single purchase we make has a ripple effect across our global market. Stay positive and stay disciplined. If you feel, like me, that the best palm oil is no palm oil then make it a point to stay away from products that use it. Send your message with your hard earned dollars and tell others about your obsession. It most definitely will help. By the way, if you want to get your family involved in palm oil action, join the upcoming global event Kids Cut Palm Oil

The easiest way to get involved is to start to see what’s already been done; thankfully there are many dedicated consumers out there who are hard at work building a clearinghouse of information for others to follow. But there are many miles to go and the more you do your own research and post your findings to others, the more we can begin to clearly see which brands are making a positive difference.

Here is one you can start with- this list of products that contain palm oil

Burnt land in Indonesia

Photo by Rini Sulaiman/ Norwegian Embassy for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). www.cifor.org

The last comment I want to make is in regards to the rising tide of “sustainable” palm oil production. The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil is a certification scheme which allows plantation owners to follow steps, which will lessen the impact that massive scale mono-cropping has on our environment. I am a tremendous supporter of taking steps to resolve these problems. Many concepts being supported by the RSPO are vast improvements over the status quo of rape and pillage plantation management, but I am personally not of the mind that this is the real solution. I would rather see a consumer driven withdrawal from palm oil which would have the effect of driving the industry to create alternatives that make sense. Algae, for one, is a terrific potential source of fats which can (and is) beginning to be harnessed by food companies. The true solution to any question of sustainability lies in appropriate diversity. My own personal life and career guide (and one of the most important concepts I try to show my children) is an idea I learned my very first day in high school biology. I call it the Golden Environmental Rule- Diversity builds Stability. Simple and sweet. Palm oil is a dangerous addiction at the moment, but we can overcome with education, discipline, faith in the power of our intention, and a whole lot of diversity!