TENDUA - Association for biodiversity conservation

Newsletter n°4


Deforestation, palm oil and soy oil

What does deforestation mean? It is defined as, “The destruction of forests by cutting down or burning trees to create agricultural or urban spaces, or to use the wood for heating or construction”. The consequences are the disappearance of ecosystems, erosion of grounds and climate change.

Having deforested, sacrificed their forests, Malaysia is experiencing its 4th generation of palm trees and has exported its “know-how” to Indonesia. A palm tree begins to produce oil at about 4 years and is productive for 20 years. The addition of fertilizer will allow it to pursue its production for another twenty years. Besides the artificial fertilizers, the problem connected to this monoculture is the impoverishment and pollution of soils and waters generated by the decomposition of the colossal organic mass of these plantations.

The scale of deforestation is alarming. Concerning Indonesia the figures are as follows:

  • Loss of over 50% of its forest in the last fifty years,
  • Two million acres per year are destroyed, i.e. one football field every 15 seconds,
  • 98% of tropical forests in Indonesia could disappear by 2022,
  • The main reason is the predicted tripling of oil palm plantations by that date.

Big Malaysian, Indonesian and Sri Lankan consortiums produce 85 % of the palm oil consumed in the world (38 million tons in 2006 against 21 millions in 2000) and sell it to international groups such as Unilever that produce a range of products from physical care to food and maintenance. The only reason of this craze for the palm oil is its moderate production cost, which is not echoed, of course, on the consumers, but allows a higher profit margin.

In fact, palm oil can be found in practically all products of everyday life: the famous chocolate paste Nutella, chocolates, sweet and salted biscuits (mark Björg, Organic products from Monoprix Department store in particular), detergents, creams and soaps (Dove), cosmetics, soups, breads (Harry’s), etc. …

 palm tree with oil begins to produce at about 4 years until 20 years, The addition of fertilizer will then allow to pursue this production
palm tree with oil begins to produce at about 4 years until 20 years, The addition of fertilizer will then allow to pursue this production
© Kalaweit

As of now, there is no label “certified organic production” for palm oil. The only valid label this day is the clear label “WITHOUT palm oil” indicated on certain products (some Jacquet’s breads). Be vigilant: “vegetable oil” means usually palm oil: olive or colza oil would clearly be indicated. The Organic or vegan labels can contain palm oil.

There has been some encouragement for the “sustainable development” of palm trees with oil, but does this really mean a way to stop deforestation? France is not yet finished with “helping” the Indonesians.

What are the underlying interests in this kind of sustainable development? The “sustainable effect” seems to concern only already established interests.

Anyway, the suggested approach of rich countries that want to export their know-how is about how to manage durable forestry. But at a closer look, the exploitation of the Southeast forest resources is increased because of the needs for wood in construction and paper for the North. Are we just trying to make ourselves feel better or is this the only opportunity not to destroy everything? ...

While we “look” for solutions “to prolong the resources”, the forest disappears and the ecosystems which live there as well: rivers are polluted, the ground and aquatic fauna dies …

16 % of the Amazonian forest has been converted into soy culture. According to studies made by Lester Brown [1], in 2005, out of 220 million tons of soy produced all over the world, 15 million tons are consumed “directly” by human beings (tofu, soy milk, yoghurts, candles, cosmetics), 144 million tons to feed livestock, in particular dairy cows, pigs and poultry: soy oil cake is very rich in proteins (In France, soy represents 70 % of the consummate oil cakes [2] ). This culture is rapidly growing because it favors a fast and low cost growth in animals. The top 2 producing and exporting countries are Brazil and Argentina. This is without even mentioning the problem of OGM soya… Still 33 million tons are produced for soy oil among which 7 % is used for agro-fuel. The environmental and human cost is very heavy: in South America, in 100 years, more than 90 tribes dependent on the forest disappeared with their language, knowledge and culture.

In 15 years, between 1995 and 2005, the Earth has lost 3 % of its forest surface. The primary forests [3] among which more than 2/3 are in Brazil (Amazonia), the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia - play nevertheless an essential role on the climate and counter greenhouse gases. The forest absorbs the light, where the naked ground sends back the energy of the sun towards the atmosphere. The average local ambient temperature can increase 10°C after deforestation takes place in a tropical zone. This local reheating modifies the atmospheric pressure, which influences the movement of air masses and causes the storms to occur. The pluviometric cycles are modified at a world level, provoking droughts and abnormal floods.

In concrete terms, we are not suggesting giving up in despair, but becoming aware of what we are consuming and perhaps reducing our consumption of products containing palm or soy oil. And even more importantly, talking about these problems around us: this way more consumers will become conscious of the situation. When consumers gain awareness, companies will take into account their points of view and governments will be pressured to take a position. “When you believe in something you can”.

[1Lester Russell Brown (born in 1934) is an American agro-economist and environmental analyst. Pioneer in research on sustainable development, he was one of the first – and most prolific - to write about problems linked to ecology

[2Oil cakes The solid residue that is left after certain oily seeds, such as cottonseed and linseed, that have been pressed free of their oil. It is ground and used as cattle feed or fertilizer

[3Primary forests a relatively intact natural forest which has not been disturbed or modified by human activity in several hundred years and is characterized by an abundance of mature trees

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