November 3, 2015

Meanwhile in South East Asia

By Steven Campbell

“Britain set for INDIAN SUMMER: Temperatures set to soar to 25C and last THREE weeks” The Sunday Express. Meanwhile in South East Asia “The forest fires blanketing Malaysia, Singapore and large parts of Indonesia in choking haze are on track to become among the worst on record, NASA warns.” ABC Australia

Both of these stories were published at roughly the same time this year, but I’ll be honest. I never even knew the “Haze” existed until eight weeks ago, let alone where it comes from and why it plagues South East Asia to varying degrees each year.

After some digging around on the internet. I discovered the “Haze” is caused by open burning in Malaysia and Indonesia to clear land for agricultural purposes. Slash and burn farming is a quick and effective method of land clearance, as you don’t need any heavy machinery. You also get the added bonus of the ash that gets left behind, which acts as a fertiliser. The problem with open burning in densely vegetated areas is it is almost impossible to control. Combine this with the predominantly peat based land in Indonesia and it is a recipe for disaster. As clearance fires are able to spread easily both above and below ground to wider areas.

As a result, millions of hectares of rainforest are being destroyed in South East Asia each year. The rapid loss of habitat in this area is also placing increasing pressure on endangered plants and animals such as Orangutans, Elephants, Sumatran Tigers and Bornean Rhinos.

According to Rainforest Rescue, the “conversion” of a single hectare of Indonesian rainforest can release up to 6,000 Tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. The local population in Indonesia and Malaysia not only have to deal with dangerous levels of airborne pollution. They are also faced with food insecurity, polluted water supplies and more often than not have their land rights violated.

So why is this being allowed to continue? The answer is Palm Oil. Palm Oil can be found in 50% of everyday consumer products such as processed food, cosmetics and fuels. In 2013 we consumed 55 million tonnes of palm oil, four times the amount used in 1990 and the demand is continuing to rise exponentially.

Palm Oil has the highest yield of any oil crop and is the cheapest to produce, so you can see why it is popular. Although these traits make it an attractive raw material, the crops require a lot of land and can only be produced in areas with consistently high temperatures and humidity. As a result, rainforests are being destroyed to make way for palm plantations and refineries. The latest predictions estimate the palm oil industry will occupy 26 million hectares in Indonesia alone by 2025. As plantations already occupy large swathes of land in South East Asia, oil producers are now turning their attention to the Congo Basin in Central Africa, threatening an area of rainforest five times the size of the UK.

So what can we do to help? Because Palm Oil appears in so many everyday products, in reality it is quite difficult to avoid. Around 70% of the Palm Oil we use is in processed food,  25% is in consumer products like make up, detergents, shampoo etc. and 5% is used in fuels such as bio diesel.

As consumers, we can help by choosing to buy ethically. For example, by swapping processed food for fresh ingredients and buying consumer products which don’t contain palm oil. We can all help to reduce the ferocious demand. The Rainforest Foundation UK have teamed up with Ethical Consumer and produced an easy to use product guide, helping us to identify the best buys. Ethical Consumer has also produced a list of organisations which do not use palm oil in any of their products. To get a copy of the product guide and for more information, you can visit the following websites:

http://www.rainforestfoundationuk.org/what-we-do/projects/palm-oil/

http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/shoppingethically/palmoilfreelist.aspx

With a few small changes to our daily routines we can all really make a difference.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Great article! You are completely right; for the scale of this crisis, it is astonishing how few people know what is going on. With palm oil in seemingly every product, it seems we are all unknowingly contributing to one of the biggest environmental disasters in recent memory

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  2. Great blog post! It is hard to know which products contain Palm Oil, I have started posting on company’s facebook pages and their Twitter accounts asking which of their products contain Palm Oil, if the consumer starts demanding change they can’t burry their head in the sand to this disaster. Will see whether they reply.

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Steven Campbell, Sustainable Cundall

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