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Palm trees: no longer a symbol of romance

October 19, 2010

A palm tree in Borneo glistens in tropical rays.

The phrase “palm tree” may not have quite the same meaning to a lot of us as more awareness about the destruction of palm oil plantations on rain forests reaches us.

A few months ago I read this article in my copy of National Geographic magazine, about how the biologically unique southeastern Asian island of Borneo—occupied by the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei—is becoming quickly stripped of rain forests and rare habitat by people who grow palm plantations in order to provide for the world’s demand of palm oil.

Palm oil’s versatility makes it popular for use in food, soaps, cosmetics and many other products that we see in our grocery isles. (You can see a list of palm oil products here, from the Rainforest Action Network.) I know, one more thing to add to your “Don’t buy if . . .” list. I’m frustrated by it too.

It’s the promise of work that makes the decision to become a palm oil grower unthinkably easy to make for many Borneo residents. Much of Borneo’s history has overlapped with only small handfuls

A makak monkey on the island of Borneo.

of human population, including indigenous groups as well as those of European decent who came to the island during Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish colonialism about 400 years ago.

But over the past 50 years, Borneo’s population has more than doubled as people have transmigrated from other areas of southeast Asia to escape overcrowding and unemployment is high.

But it’s the food and commodity conglomerates like Keebler, Oreo, Mrs. Fields, Pepperidge Farm and others that are to blame for high demands for the “cheap” oil.

Though the CIA census data from 2005 reports that only 7.04% of Indonesia’s land mass is used for permanent crops (it is no doubt higher now), Palm oil plantations have been growing in size and number dramatically since the late-’90s. More awareness and work by advocacy groups is putting pressure on palm oil users and producers to source sustainable crops. General Mills announced in September that it will “strive to source 100 percent of our palm oil from responsible and sustainable sources by 2015,” due largly to the Rainforest Action Network’s pressure:

Mt. Kinabalu. Borneo is the third biggest island in the world.

Borneo is one of those places still left in the world where scientists are still “discovering” new species, like this one. For me, living in a fairly large city surrounded by hundreds of miles of dense suburbs and relatively small patches of forest, it is hard to believe that unexplored areas of the Earth’s surface exist. It’s also extremely hard to know where to spend and not spend my money in such a consumer-driven culture, or to know if it even really makes a difference. So I take statements like the one from GM and movies like King Corn and Food Inc., the continued existence of the Amish way of farming and the Huffinton Post’s great Food section (which has sustainability on its mind) as hope that a movement of sustainable food products will become more and more available and easier to identify.

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