Impact of Palm Oil on the Environment

Impact of Palm oil on the Environment..

Grown in tropical regions of the world, palm oil is a vegetable oil produced from the fruits of oil palm trees. The oil contains high saturated fats and each fruit contains two different types of oils. While Palm Kernel Oil is produced from the seed of each fruit, Palm Vegetable Oil is obtained from the flesh of the fruit. Indonesia and Malaysia are the largest producers and manufacturers of palm oil and a major share (86%) of the production in the whole world comes from them. The production of palm oil has increased in decades and it is estimated that the demand will increase in leaps and bounds by the year 2050.

Use of Palm Oil in the Industry

1. Though palm oil is primarily used for culinary purposes, this oil is also used for manufacturing soaps, detergents, cosmetics, various food products. Each pre-packaged food contains palm oil. Also, palm wax is used in the manufacturing of candles.

2. Production of biofuel for motor vehicles, ships, and aircraft fuel is another major market area for palm oils.

3. As a livestock feed, palm kernels are used to produce Palm Kernel Cake, which is a high protein feed to fatten the cattle.

Major Factors Leading to Environmental Concern

Environmental Concern

A low-cost, high-yield product, palm oil is a feasible choice for farmers. Plantations of palm trees are spreading faster to meet the demands in countries like Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Recently, the oil palm industry has expanded in Borneo, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula, where global palm oil production is more than 90%.

The total crop area required by every plantation is, approximately, (425 Mha), which is very little as compared to other crops. Every oil palm tree requires approximately 3m diameters near the base of each tree to allow its full growth.


Nature is always hard-hit when it comes to project expansions. From bio-diversities to lives of endangered species, expansion has always been done at the cost of Nature. Generally, forests are burnt in Asia and drained of natural resources. Negative impacts caused the climatic change, a decline of species of various animals, decline of undiscovered bio-diversities, causing high greenhouse emissions and severe air pollution. These disturb various ecosystems and natural habitats, as well as, cause extreme food shortages for animals thriving in these areas.
Mostly, plantations in Southeast Asia, have been on peat soil, which was earlier a part of peat swamp forests. This caused severe drainage of the carbon-rich organic soils and increased greenhouse emissions from the area.

Pollution and Global Warming

Indonesia is one such country, which is being deforested faster as compared to any other country in Asia. Large chunks of forests are burnt down to make way for plantations, due to which, severely polluted smog is being felt in Malaysia and Singapore. This mass scale deforestation is the whole sole reason for 20% of global warming and climatic change. Such rich forestry is meant to absorb the carbon dioxide from the air, the chances of which are diminishing by days.

Destroying Habitats & Vegetation

Trying to meet the high demand, these additional plantation expansions will take a toll on land degradation, illegal encroachment, and effects on biodiversity and animal life. We will highlight the unethical, illegal practices adopted by the plantation owners and instructions given to the local communities staying near the plantation sites.

(a) Here is a quotation from COP (Centre ForOrangutan Protection) – “Orangutans’ poaching is done deliberately as a policy made by palm oil corporations. Therefore, they hire local people as pest busters, who serve the corporation with killing any wild animals, including orangutans, which spoil palm oil trees within the plantations. The pest busters will bring up a cut-off hand of an orangutan they have killed and hand it to the corporation as proof. When they find an adult female orangutan with her baby, they will usually kill the ‘mother’ and take away the baby for pet or sale.”

Animals are often starved due to the lack of vegetation removed by locals to pave way for expansion. Without any food resources, trapped in the small areas left for them to survive, these hapless animals often enter the plantation sites in the search of food.

Especially orangutans and elephants are considered as ‘spoilers for the new crops. They are either mowed down by excavation or plantation equipment or simply burnt alive. The animals are caught, held, beaten, slaughtered, or illegally smuggled in other countries to be sold as pets for extra money by plantation owners and workers equally.

(b) The fate of elephants is nonetheless painful. The wildlife creatures venture out of their protected areas in search of food as fewer forest foods are left for them. A loss of habitat, reducing water resources make elephants wander through the villages. They are often poisoned and killed and their tusks are removed to give an effect of ivory trade poaching to prove to the authorities of illegal land trading.

(c) Due to the loss of habitat the tigers and rhinos are disappearing faster. To add to the poaching factor, the crop plantations and land encroachments have starved many of these species to death, if timely action is not taken, none of these problems will be resolved.

Human Rights Issues

Human rights issues are some of the other aspects revolving around palm oil production. Some of them are –

  • Illegal land grabbing
  • Unethical wildlife loss
  • Child Labour
  • Leakage of chemicals through the water supply
  • Illegal Land Clearing

Indonesia alone lost an average of 917,000 hectares of natural forest per year from 2009-2013.

Illegal Logwood Selling

Amongst the many unethical practices surrounding palm oil production is the selling of log woods to the timber industry. Some palm oil manufacturers are tied up with timber-wood firms. Clearing a virgin forest means earning more, both from selling timber and producing palm oils. 

Pressure from Supermarket Chains

Palm oils have a very bland taste and a high heating point. Therefore, it is best suited for quick frying products and helps in increasing the average shelf life of pre-packaged foods. Therefore, supermarket chains often try to sell products at a nominal price. Palm oil allows such price cuts but also helps in earning a profit margin.

The Socio-Economic Factors

More attention is required to be given to the global impacts on palm oil production as compared to the benefits, or profit earnings and meeting the demands globally. 

Impact of Palm oil on the Environment

Social Conflict

Various social conflicts may arise that can become a major source of a problem in the future:

  • Issues over land rights and the plantation owners can arise
  • Migrant workers vs the local workers can lead to severe facility issues regarding wages, a place to stay, and other work facilities
  • Issues regarding the income gap within the working communities can be a major source of contradiction

Displacement of Communities and Loss of Customary Land Rights

  • Original land settlers occupy lands that cover major hectares in Indonesia; however, only 1 million hectares are legally recognized by the Government of Indonesia. The land rights of these people often go unrecognized by the individual states and the Government hands overthese lands to the palm oil companies without the knowledge or approval of these people.
  • Often, villagers are pushed out of their traditional farming lands as illegal land grabbing forced them to do so. Local tribes and people who originated and lived in those ancestral forests for many generations have been forced to move out. For example, the Dayaks in Borneo.
  • Constant skirmishes are occurring between the Companies producing palm oil and ancestral settlers, who accuse land grabbers of stealing their water and land resources. The farmers are re-settling and trying to clear forests to start afresh with new sites for farming. This in turn is disturbing the natural habitat.

Loss of Cultural Heritage

Tourism spots and heritage sites may very soon be affected if not protected soon and culturally or religiously important sites will lose their originality and value.

 Fiddling with Labour Rights

  • Most workers live in the worst of conditions without basic amenities or clean water or lighting. They do not know their rights and are often deprived of them.
  • Migrant laborers are often taken on an undocumented basis. Usually, human trafficking is also done for these plantations., mostly in Malaysia and Asia. Workers’ documents are seized by the plantation owners and proper contacts are also not given to them. they are threatened with confiscation of wages or documents, in case they retaliate.
  • A major problem is child labor. In Malaysia alone, 72,000 and 200,000 stateless children work on palm oil plantations, mostly without pay, enduring harsh and long hours of working conditions. Exposure to pesticides and strong chemicals are also serious issues to be dealt with.

Achieving the Positive Aspects

Unfortunately, we cannot replace palm oil with other oils, as the production cost of any other oil is much higher than producing palm oils. Also, the production of a variety of other oils occupies land and is equally environmentally harmful, much for the same reasons. For example, olive oil is chemicalized to attain its strong taste, smell, and colour and they are seasonal. But oil palm crops can be harvested throughout the year.

(i) In a way it’s round the year employment for farmers in palm oil plantations, unlike, seasonal farming employment for other crops.

Habitat Corridors

Many wildlife protection organizations and ethical landowners have joined hands towards a more environmentally friendly approach to palm oil farming. Mostly these corridors are conserved forests areas between plantation farms. They preserve bio-diversities and permit animals to move around freely for feeding themselves in the forests, without affecting the plantations. For example, in Borneo, Malaysia, elephants are often passed through the palm plantations and ate up 150kgs of old oil palm trunks per day. Some plantation owners decided to join hands with WWF and make a habitat corridor of 1,067 hectares, for the elephants. Through this corridor, two forests were linked and a route for the elephants was set up with a food variety so that the palm oil crops could be saved. This causes the growers to dislike the elephants.

Scientists have suggested habitat corridors alongside riverbeds and helping marine life and birds and animals who thrive on this marine life. Besides protecting the crops, this would help stop the unethical practices and provide better food resources for animals. This suggestion is being used by Unilever and other big firms.

Utilising Unused Farmlands

The best way to reduce deforestation is, utilizing the unused farming lands for growing oil palm crops. This reduces 99.7% of carbon emissions and saves the rainforests from being slashed and burnt. This will also increase biodiversity levels and protect the environment from air pollution.

Establishing RSPO

With all the other harmful factors given the palm oil production, The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products through global standards and multistakeholder governance, (source: Google). The RSPO has set some standards of behaviour to improve the plantation culture, laws, production, and punishing the lawbreakers while working hands-on for wildlife restoration and helping bio-diversities to co-exist. As per RSPO guidelines(mentioned below), the following standards should be maintained by oil palm plantation owners –

  1. Behave ethically and transparently
  2. Operate legally
  3. Optimize productivity, efficiency, and positive impacts
  4. Respect community and human rights, and provide benefits to communities (such as playgrounds, childcare, and schools)
  5. Support smallholder plantations (plantations usually owned by a single-family)
  6. Respect workers’ rights and provide a good work environment
  7. Protect, conserve, and improve ecosystems and the environment

If they stick to these rules, companies can use the RSPO logo which proves that their palm oil has been produced sustainably. Other sustainable palm oil organizations operate similarly, including MSPO and Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO). They too have their recognizable logos, which are used on products around the globe.

Human encroachment and unethical behaviour towards co-existing bio-diversities and other human beings have been an age-old factor of human nature. More stringent laws and stricter punishments are required for such purposes. Abiding the rules more sustainable palm oil farming can be established in the future, without hampering the natural resources any further.