Deforestation Due to Palm Oil

Rachael Bernstein- Animal Science

Joe Wong- Animal Science

Wyatt Lewis- Animal Science

A Period of Consequences

“An Armageddon is approaching at the beginning of the third millennium. But it is not the cosmic war and fiery collapse of mankind foretold in sacred scripture. It is the wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly plentiful and ingenious humanity.” O. Wilson

While the annihilation of Earth, predicted by the Bible or caused by a nuclear war might be a stretch in the foreseeable future, global warming is currently creating a destructive cycle that could be the downfall of mankind. In the 21st century, global awareness about climate change is as high as ever, leading companies and governments on a path to go green in order to save the planet. At the same time, palm oil has become one of the most common oil products used worldwide. Many companies and consumers use palm oil for cooking, keeping food products moist, and in many common household cleaning products. Many consumers believe that this product is more environmentally safe, leading us to use less fossil fuels and decrease the amount of carbon being sent in to the atmosphere. While there are many benefits to using this multifunctional product, the environmental impacts are catastrophic. Unlike deforestation for logging or other agricultural purposes, palm oil plantations cannot be regrown, and the ecosystems that were lost due to the harvesting process can never be reclaimed. Most overseas oil palm plantations are constructed in tropical forests, where peatland is abundant and can be used in bulk. The most common areas used are in the countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. Only 3% of land used for this process comes from other areas of the globe. It is becoming increasingly evident that some sort of national deterrent is necessary to slow down this inevitable event.


A severely underestimated problem with the production of oil palm plantations is the loss of local animal and plant populations. In Indonesia, 15 land mammal species are currently listed under critically endangered, and 125 are listed under threatened (Brown, E. & Jacobson, F. 2005). In Malaysia, 6 species are listed as critically endangered and 41 are listed as threatened (Brown, E. & Jacobson, F. 2005). The number is higher when looking outside of just the mammal populations, including bird and amphibian. These two countries that contribute the most palm oil in the world have some of the most endangered species, some that do not and cannot exist elsewhere. In particular, these “Five mammals exemplify the impending disaster: the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, Asian elephant, and Sumatran rhinoceros” (Brown, E. & Jacobson, F. 2005 p. v). These species will surely not survive any more deforestation for palm oil and cannot be simply moved to another habitat. Some of the most diverse ecosystems are located in these rainforests, which provide environments that cannot be found anywhere else and that cannot be simply replicated.

The deforestation of peatland in particular is so destructive that the ecosystems cannot regrow or repopulate. Peatland is a swampy environment that many of these rain forests grow in, and contains decomposing organic matter that contributes to its high carbon content. When the peatland is drained for the deforestation, the remaining oxygen will react with the organic compounds that were decomposing in the soil, and form CO2. Due to how expensive converting old farms and already logged lands to plantations is, companies instead light fires to clear areas, which speeds up the conversion of the oxygen to carbon dioxide and consequently, the emissions. Many of these forest fires end up spreading further, continuing into national parks and killing animals in the process (Brown, E. & Jacobson, F. 2005). This method is particularly destructive for peatland, not only releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but destroying the composition of the soil and the accumulated microbial populations that have been existing there for hundreds of years.

In a study done by Pin Koh et al. in 2011, they found that out of all forest deforestation, the deforestation for palm oil “Subregions experienced the greatest biodiversity losses” (Koh Pin et al., 2011, p. 5129). Reestablishing these forests could bring back local plant life, but the local species will be forever lost. These forests have been split up into sections by the process, hindering migration patterns of specific species and splitting up populations from one another. Loss of species is also due in part to survival of the fittest, where the only individuals in a population that survive these disruptions are different in many of the traditional traits that the species once had. Due to the loss of traits, these species now cannot fit in to their original environmental niche, traveling to other niches instead and driving out other local species from their ecosystem. Edwards et al.  support this with their data, which illustrated that “The loss of forest species was not counterbalanced by the addition of new, disturbance-tolerant species that could either fill vacant functional niches or occupy different functional roles” (Edwards et al., 2014, p. 169). It creates a cycle of destruction, not only destroying directly the first ecosystem, but causing residual damage in other ecosystems.

The conservation of biodiversity is also critical for other systems in the environment to function properly. Many local tribes use these environments as water sources, depending on its cleanliness, the recycling of minerals, and the detoxification of compounds from the water by local plant life. It is becoming more and more apparent that “Biodiversity must be conserved within the remainder of the landscape to provide potential support to a variety of other ecosystem functions such as pollination, biological control, litter and dung decomposition, maintenance of water quality and environmental awareness” (Fitzherbert et al., 2008, p. 3278). People underestimate the effects of species loss, not understanding their function in the control of other pests, the pollination of certain plants for agriculture, and soil fertility. With species evolving and some becoming more prevalent than others, there is a change in top soil composition, compaction, erosion, and litter decomposition (Fitzherbert et al., 2008). In particular, these rain forests being converted contain some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, and the loss of just one species could impact not only other species, but the lives of the local people. These forests are of cultural importance to the tribes living there, who have always depended on them for food and shelter. It is of critical importance to instead focus on reforesting these areas, and trying to reestablish these important ecosystems.


Palm oil is one of the main exports in Malaysia, second to only petroleum and tin, which make up the majority of their economy. The economies of both Malaysia and Indonesia revolve around the exploitation of their minerals and natural resources, leading Malaysia to be one of the richest South Asian countries. While some may argue that this economic boom allows for the creation of jobs, the United States Department of Labor Bureau of International Labor Affairs claims that these jobs are in fact filled by child labor and forced labor practices. The actual amount of employed workers that are not forced into labor is unknown, while the total amount of people employed in 2012 is around 491,000. The government seemingly prospers from marketing this product more than the citizens of the country itself.

The economic benefits of palm oil production have promised to alleviate poverty in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, which are stricken with economic hardships and high poverty rates. However, palm oil may not be the solution to all of their economic woes. Obidzinski et al. (2012) argue that oil palm plantations create unevenly distributed economic benefits, at the cost of significant environmental losses. The Indonesian Government stated that by 2010, production of palm oil would reduce the amount of poverty by 16% by creating over 3.6 million jobs in areas of the country that desperately need them. The amount of jobs actually created were significantly less than the projected amount and had little to no effect on reducing poverty. Instead of the 3.6 million jobs that were projected by the Indonesian government, only 10,000 to 20,000 were created over the 100,000 hectares of palm oil plantations in 2010. The Indonesian government predicted that poverty rates would decline sharply once large palm oil plantations became established, but the poverty rates have been stagnant even after the rapid expansion of palm oil (Obidzinski, 2012, p. 25).

The lack of jobs created in both Malaysia and Indonesia have not stopped investors and real estate companies from purchasing lands previously set aside to be spared from conversion to palm oil. Over the last decade palm oil plantations have expanded from 1.1 million hectares in 1990 to over 7.8 million hectares in 2010, now currently accounting for 45% of the global output of palm oil (Obidzinski, et. al., 2014, p. 96). Pressure from emerging economies are the driving force behind the expansion of palm oil. The rapid expansion of palm oil over the two decades has generated 17.7 billion in USD in 2012, but has done little to nothing in terms of establishing an effective infrastructure in rural areas where the most rapid expansion of palm oil is taking place (Obidzinski, et. al., 2014, p. 96). Due to the underwhelming amount of jobs created with such rapid expansion of palm oil plantations, not many jobs are going to be created in the rural areas that so desperately need them. And the jobs being created are forcing people to work in the inhospitable environments created during the deforestation process. Future palm oil expansion is only projected to employ 0.4 persons per hectare, creating roughly 3.2 million jobs in total, while the entire population of Indonesia is over 249 million, employing less than 1.3 percent of the Indonesian population (Obidzinski, et. al., 2014, p. 97). This leads reason to believe that the benefits of producing palm oil are seemingly less than what was once believed. Many people reason the destruction of these priceless rain forests with the expectation that these citizens will have an increase in their standard of living, which seems to not be the case.

Global Warming:

The common belief is that use of palm oil reduces greenhouse gas emissions by reducing usage of fossil fuels, leading to cleaner air and protection of the environment. However, the rising demands for food and biofuels are driving forest clearance in the tropics. Rapid release of carbon from converted forests has greater greenhouse gas impacts than the fossil fuels they displace. The main contributing force is palm oil plantation expansion, which creates huge increases in carbon dioxide emissions. Converting native rainforests to plantations releases carbon dioxide as a result of fire or microbial decomposition. Forest conversion causes a net release of approximately 650 Mg carbon dioxide per hectare, while the emission from peat forest conversion is over 1300 Mg carbon dioxide per hectare due to the emission of carbon oxide and nitrous oxide (Fargione et. al., 2008). These emissions take a huge toll on the atmosphere, accelerating the effect of global warming. Several consequences include global migration of coastal populations, extinction of many animal species, and severe changes in weather patterns. This will eventually lead to an uninhabitable Earth, which is a future we do not want to create for future generations.

Deforestation from plantation expansion also influences local and global climates. Trees moderate air temperature and maintain atmospheric humidity. They also absorb atmospheric carbon and convert it to oxygen for us to breathe (Brown, E. & Jacobson, M., 2005). These forests contribute to a large amount of the purified air that we humans love to breathe, and taking them away unearths many consequences. In a deforestation study of Kalimantan, Indonesia, clearing rates have increased 212% to 2,328 km2 yr from 2000. By 2010, plantations covered 31,640 km2 with 87% on mineral soils and 13% on peatlands. Peatland conversion to oil palm increased from 3% in the 1990s to 16% in the 2000s (Carlson et. al., 2012). Accelerating demand for palm oil is contributing to the 1.5% annual rate of deforestation of tropical rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia. (Fargione et. al., 2008). The rates at which these unique forests are being converted is astounding, and it is imperative that we understand the vast effects that influence every aspect of life. Carbon emissions are ever increasing simply due to human existence, so it is becoming more critical to limit our carbon footprint.


In order to protect these precious environments and slow down climate change, it is imperative to work together with not only the government, but the companies and consumers that use palm oil. While consumers in particular believe they are being more efficient by not using as many fossil fuels or that the oil they are using is sustainable, it is crucial for them to understand the true damage that they are doing, Due to the detrimental environmental and economic impacts of palm oil deforestation, we encourage the federal government to place a tax on the importation of palm oil and discourage consumers from buying products that contain palm oil.

We argue that there must be federal legislation in order to pioneer the movement away from oil palm production to prevent deforestation. We believe there are other sustainable methods for harvesting biofuel and oil in order to slow the rate of global carbon emissions. Other forms of vegetable oil, such as soybean or sunflower oil, can be used by consumers for cooking. In many parts of the world, use of soybean oil is currently on the rise. However, what makes palm oil truly unique is its high melting point and high saturation levels. Scientists have been working on an alternative that can contribute the same properties but be less harmful to the environment. Many of the vegetable oils used for cooking have properties that are close, but they still cannot beat palm oil. The University of Bath has been working on this research, and have found that a certain form of yeast can be used as a perfect alternative for companies that use the palm oil to keep foods moist, in soaps and in biofuels. This oily yeast can be found almost anywhere naturally, so nothing must be destroyed in order to harvest it. It has already been used in the South African wine industry, so it has been proven harmless to humans.

With these alternatives present, and while it may cause some inconvenience for companies or consumers, it is in everyone’s’ best interest. Although there may be more sustainable ways to harvest oil palm, it is cheaper for companies to exploit these countries for their natural resources. Making an end to this deforestation is of greatest importance.

While we understand that we are only proposing a tax for the United States, it is a big enough consumer to cause a huge decrease in the amount of palm oil used in the world, and hopefully other countries will follow the example. It is our responsibility as human beings to keep our earth healthy, and not take for granted the necessity of these forests. Each organism plays an important role in Earth’s vast ecosystems, and are important in other ecosystems, as well as our own. While economics might play a role in deterring countries from dealing with this problem, it also includes many bigger problems like child labour. And finally, one of the most crucial reasons for halting this destructive process is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Governments spend millions of dollars in attempts to find more globally safe ways for certain industries, and using palm oil is simply irresponsible and incongruous with the previous measures they are taking. As Carl Zimmer says, “Humans are not very good parasites. Successful parasites do a very good job of balancing—using up their hosts and keeping them alive. It’s all a question of tuning the adaptation to your particular host. In our case, we have only one host, so we have to be particularly careful.”



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