Palm Oil

Huge demand for palm oil is undoubtedly the greatest threat to orangutans. As forests are converted to palm oil plantations, the animals are rapidly losing their habitat.

Native to West Africa, the oil palm tree produces large quantities of red fruits, which, when crushed, produce an oil that has been traditionally used as a cooking oil, in soap, and as a lubricant for steam engines. Extremely versatile, as its use has grown, so has demand. Today, nearly 78 million tonnes are produced each year for the world export market, with Indonesia and Malaysia accounting for 90% of this production (RSPO, 2019). Only 19% of this oil is certified as sustainable by the RSPO (RSPO, 2019).

Palm oil is now used in a huge array of food and consumer products, from ice cream and shampoo to peanut butter and candles. The WWF estimates that 50% of all packaged supermarket products contain palm oil, and demand is now growing for its use as a "green" biofuel.

The palm oil industry benefits Indonesia and Malaysia. It's an essential factor in both countries’ recent economic growth. While such an industry should be welcomed in countries where many live below the poverty line, the current nature of the industry in Borneo and Sumatra is having a detrimental effect on orangutans.

Because orangutan diets consist mainly of fruit and, they're mainly found in fruit-rich lowland forests. Unfortunately, this land is often the most attractive for palm oil companies. Current practice involves clear-cutting, stripping the forest of all its timber and selling it off. Fires are then set, to rid the land of any wood debris, clear the undergrowth and provide the soil with fertilizing ash. As fires burn, all wildlife either dies or flees the area, where it will often either starve to death or be killed by neighboring plantation workers as pests. Once the oil palm is planted, the fragile rainforest ecosystem that has developed over millions of years is lost. In Indonesia and Malaysia, between 80% and 100% of the fauna inhabiting tropical rainforests cannot survive in oil palm monocultures, according to WWF Netherlands.

The area planted with oil palm in Indonesia has grown to more than 12 million hectares (ISPO). Despite numerous scientific reports detailing the costs of palm oil expansion to biodiversity, endangered species, indigenous tribes, and global carbon emissions, and worldwide media pressure on the plight of endangered species like the orangutan, Sumatran tiger, and Bornean elephants, the conversion of forests to plantations continues unabated.

Even world-famous national parks in Indonesia are not safe from the rampant spread of palm oil plantations. In Central Kalimantan, Tanjung Puting National Park, home to approximately 6,000 orangutans, has been under serious threat, and if plans by the local government to allocate palm oil concessions on the park's eastern border go ahead, the size of the park would be decreased by 25%. Plans by a British company to convert the Tripa peat swamps of northern Sumatra in to a palm oil plantation could see the remaining population of Sumatran orangutans in this area become extinct within 4 years, and the destruction of a coastal ecosystem which saved thousands of lives when the forest acted as a buffer to rising tides during the 2004 Asian tsunami.

To mitigate the problems caused by the palm oil industry, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004, to bring growers, processors, food companies, investors and NGOs together to find solutions and ways to make the industry more sustainable. While developments have been slow and the organization has been criticized for alleged corruption, it is hoped this consortium can be one of the solutions to the problem.

A number of studies and reports document the threat palm oil plantations pose to orangutans, other wildlife, environment, and human health. One report shows disturbing practices by palm oil workers who kill orangutans in brutal and inhumane ways.

The spread of palm oil plantations is one of the greatest threats to orangutan survival, but it's also an important driver of future economic growth in Indonesia and Malaysia. Despite repeated and high-profile warnings of the toll the industry is taking on the region's biodiversity, the number of plantations continues to increase.

In both Indonesia and Malaysia, the area planted with oil palm has trebled from 24,000 km2 in 1990 to 83,700 km2 in 2007, an average annual increase of around 3,500 km2, and it is estimated that at least 55% of oil palm expansion in these countries came at the expanse of natural forests, with the remainder obtained from the conversion of pre-existing croplands such as rubber and cocoa. In 2007 alone, Malaysia and Indonesia made US$14 billion and US$5.5 billion from palm oil export revenue, and the industry, directly and indirectly, employs around a million people in both of these countries (Nantha & Tisdell, 2008).

The palm oil trees high yield, cheap cost and the fact that the yield is semi-solid at room temperature, so does not need to be hardened to be useful as a shortening, has made palm oil the most widely traded oil on the international market. Highly versatile, it is used in a variety of household products, from margarine and shortening to cooking oil, soups, baked goods, and confectionary products. It can also be a substitute for hard animal fats, such as butter and lard, and for soy, olive or canola liquid vegetable oils. Chocolate products such as candy bars and cake icing use palm oil as a substitute for cocoa butter, and it is often found in ice cream, peanut butter, coffee whitener, canned cream soups, potato chips, milk, trail mix and other snack foods (Brown & Jacobson, 2005). WWF estimates that 50% of all packaged supermarket products contain palm oil.

Finding a way to balance the spread of palm oil plantations and the increasing demand for palm oil, palm kernel oil and palm kernel meal on the international market is one of the greatest challenges for conservationists working in Indonesia and Malaysia. Condemning the whole industry, or hoping that it simply fades away, is unrealistic, so conservationists have increasingly begun working with the industry, encouraging the concept of sustainable palm oil.

On paper, all oil palm plantations should already be sustainable because Indonesia and Malaysia both strongly regulate them. In Indonesia, which is home to the largest populations of orangutans and the most substantial tracts of rainforest in South East Asia, no significant land development activities are permitted before the company has obtained a valid Plantation Business Permit (IUP), which should only be awarded after an Environmental Impact Assessment has been completed and approved.

According to Indonesian law, developing an oil palm plantation without an EIA should result in any IUP that has been issued being revoked (Greenpeace, 2009). Indonesian law also stipulates that any area that contains peat deeper than three meters should automatically be afforded legally protected status, and that if any concessions contain forested areas, companies are forbidden from cutting trees or harvesting and collecting any forest products until they have obtained a Timber Cutting Permit (IPK), which is issued at a local level by either the governor or the district head (Greenpeace, 2009). As orangutans are a protected species throughout the country, their presence in any forested area should, on paper, ensure its protection. In reality, these laws are routinely flouted.

RSPO logo2 To ensure adherence to the law and to encourage sustainability throughout the industry, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004. Made up of a consortium of NGO’s and palm oil producers, the voluntary organization hopes to encourage palm oil producers to adopt practices and guidelines that would lead to palm oil production becoming environmentally and socially sustainable. By joining the organisation companies are obliged to comply with the RSPO’s ‘Principles & Criteria’, which stipulate that all palm oil producers commit to transparency, comply with all laws and regulations of the countries they're working in, commit to long-term economic viability, use appropriate best practices, behave in an environmentally responsible way and conserve natural resources and biodiversity, consider employees and local communities and adhere to responsible development. If all these criteria are reached, palm oil producers are encouraged to have their palm oil plantations certified by the RSPO as sustainable, which would allow them to use the RSPO logo and advertise their palm oil as such.

Launched with much fanfare and with the support of the majority of rainforest conservation charities, including OURF, the RSPO has tried to regulate the industry and bring the issue of palm oil and its sustainability to consumers. However, it has also been dogged by accusations of ineffectiveness, infighting, lax regulation, and competing interests. At the heart of these issues is the debate over whether palm oil can ever be truly sustainable, and whether such a complicated extraction, processing and distribution process can ever be properly certified.  To try and combat this, the RSPO offers four different categories of certification, with different levels of certification depending on how thoroughly the palm oil can be traced from source to distribution. The most popular certification method is the Greenpalm scheme, an RSPO endorsed trading scheme that enables palm oil producers to earn a premium for using sustainable production methods, regardless of whether their product is exported. RSPO-certified producers have issued certificates for each tonne of certified palm oil that they produce. End users can then 'cover' their use of palm oil by buying the certificates from GreenPalm, in the process supporting sustainable palm oil production (GreenPalm website).

An issue that many NGOs have raised with the RSPO is its lack of ability to properly enforce rules and the danger that RSPO membership is becoming a way for palm oil producers to present to the buying public a veneer of sustainability without any actual desire to produce their palm oil sustainably. Controversy arose in New Zealand in 2009 after Cadbury began putting palm oil in its popular dairy milk bars, prompting a public backlash by consumers and conservationists in the country. Cadbury eventually relented, and announced it would revert to using traditional cocoa butter, but assured consumers that all the palm oil they used was certified and sustainably produced because it had independent GreenPalm certification. While for many this would be reassuring, closer examination revealed that the palm oil used was most likely not sustainable; as mentioned in the paragraph above, GreenPalm certificates are given if a plantation proves they are producing palm oil sustainably. However, this just means that the company has at least one sustainable plantation, and the GreenPalm certificate issued can be sold old to another company. The palm oil produced on that certified plantation is not sold or kept separately; it is simply put into the same tanker as the unsustainably sourced palm oil, and shipped to manufacturers. In essence, the GreenPalm certificate does not guarantee consumers are consuming sustainable palm oil (The Guardian, 2009).

In 2009, the NGO International Animal Rescue discovered that First Resources, a Hong Kong-based palm oil company and member of the RSPO, was illegally clearing land in West Kalimantan. As a result, it was responsible for a number of orangutan deaths and for capturing infant orangutans. After these orangutans were rescued, an official complaint was made to the RSPO. While this company does not have any of its plantations certified as being sustainable, its membership of the RSPO states it must adhere to the Principles and Criteria of the organization. The RSPO agreed to look in to the matter. However, First Resources is still an RSPO member, the complaint isn't mentioned on the company's page on the RSPO website, and the company is free to advertise its membership of the RSPO on its own website. While the difference between being an RSPO member and having your production being RSPO certified are two very different things, for consumers, this is not always clear, and for many, the RSPO is a smokescreen, behind which palm oil producers sit (RAN, 2011).

In response, the RSPO points out that it's a voluntary organization that is limited in its capacity to sanctioning companies that break its rules. It also must deal with the competing interests of the palm oil producers and distributors that are among its members. In 2011, IOI Group, one of Malaysia’s leading producers of palm oil, was reported to the RSPO by a number of NGOs after evidence was collated showing IOI was responsible for illegally clearing large tracts of forest in Kalimantan. The RSPO responded by announcing that the company had breached its code of conduct, and granted it a limit by which time it must provide answers to the accusations. Although there was criticism that the RSPO had not done more, the fact that it had publicly criticized an RSPO member was rare, and came a year after the RSPO had publicly rebuked PT Smart Tbk and its parent company Golden-Agri Resources for breaches of the RSPO rules, the first time it had done so (Reuters, 2010). While these actions were welcomed by conservationists, they angered the Malaysian government and palm oil body, who in 2011 announced plans to form its own sustainable palm oil regulatory body, implying that the RSPO was becoming too strict (Mongabay, 2011). While this has been interpreted by some as a sign that Malaysian and Indonesian, palm oil producers are becoming increasingly aware of the issue of sustainable palm oil, it is feared that if companies pull away from the RSPO, it would make the industries only recognized regulatory body largely irrelevant.

Although it needs improvement, the RSPO is currently the only organization able to regulate an industry that poses the greatest threat to orangutan populations in the wild. As the use of palm oil increases and a greater threat is placed on desirable lowland tropical forests, it is more imperative than ever that business leaders are encouraged to behave in an environmentally responsible way, and suppliers are put under pressure, by both NGOs and individual members of the public, to ensure the palm oil they use in their products does not come from plantations established at the expense of rainforests and endangered species.



Brown, E. & Jacobson, M. (2005). Cruel Oil: How palm oil harms health, rainforest & wildlife. Center for science in the public interest.

FOE. (2006). The use of palm oil for biofuel and as biomass for energy. Friends of the Earth.

Greenpeace. (2009). Illegal forest clearance and RSPO greenwash: Case studies of Sinar Mas. Greenpeace.

Mongabay (2011).Malaysian government to launch RSPO rival for palm oil certification. Mongabay. 

Nantha, H.S. & Tisdell, C. (2009). The orangutan-oil palm conflict: economic constraints & opportunities for conservation. Biodiversity & Conservation, Vol. 18, Issue 2, pp. 487-502.

Oil World Trade Journal. (2008). World oil factsheet.

RAN. (2011). The Great RSPO Membership Myth: Why Buying from RSPO Members Is Meaningless. Rainforest Action Network.

Reuters. (2010). Sustainable palm oil body censures Indonesia's PT SMART. Reuters.

The Guardian. (2009). 'Green palm oil' claims land Cadbury's in sticky chocolate mess. The Guardian, UK.