The Independent Letters
Saturday, 31 October 2009
The perils of palm oil plantations
Your coverage of the issues surrounding palm oil production is most welcome (report and leading article, 28 October). But simply scoring companies on whether they are using "sustainable" palm oil, as WWF have done, is rather oversimplifying things and assumes the existence of truly sustainable palm oil.
Greenpeace has capably demonstrated that plantations and companies are being certified as sustainable while still converting forests to palm plantations, albeit in other regions or under different subsidiary names, and Friends of the Earth categorically stated that "the vast scale of palm oil production means that it cannot be sustainable".
Claiming that palm oil can simply be grown on existing "marginal" land ignores the reality that much of the land designated as marginal is actually vital to local people who use the land for growing food or collecting materials for crafts such as boat-building.
I have spent time with the Orang Rimba tribe in Indonesia and seen first-hand how their culture, way of life and very means of survival are threatened by encroaching palm plantations. War on Want has also documented how increased demand for palm oil from Colombia has led to mercenaries forcibly evicting people from their land to clear the way for the palm industry. Palm plantations provide very little in the way of jobs and are more likely to displace people and deprive them of their traditional livelihoods and food security.
Until we cut the global demand for palm oil and switch to a broad spectrum of edible oils, much of which can be grown on existing agricultural land, and ensure that companies are not simply buying the cheapest oils on the global commodities market, then these problems will persist.
Campaigns Manager, Lush Cosmetics, Poole, Dorset
You are right to highlight the environmental damage caused by the monoculture plantations which are invading virgin rainforest at an accelerating rate to grow the world's cheapest vegetable oil. But you fail to mention the human cost of this increasingly lucrative commodity.
Christian Aid supports several small farming communities in Colombia who have been driven off their land by violence or threats of violence. A few years later, that same land, which they had been using to grow food, is covered in African palm plants from which the valuable oil is extracted.
In July this year, riot police removed 123 families from land they were farming to make way for a new plantation run by a company which supplies several UK retailers.
Colombia has had a higher proportion of its population forced to flee their homes than anywhere in the world, apart from Sudan. Palm oil cultivation is only making this problem worse. Certification of sustainable plantations is not protecting people who rely on the land to feed themselves. It is time to question the whole direction of palm oil production.
Colombia Country Representative, Christian Aid, Bogota
It is the ultimate irony that the climate change negotiations at Copenhagen now contain a clause permitting virgin rainforest to be felled and replaced by commercial palm oil monocultures because these plantations can be classed as "forests". This is like saying that it is OK to destroy a priceless Leonardo Da Vinci painting as long as you replace it with a poster.
The tropical rainforests act not only as the lungs and heart of our planet's weather system but contain a host of irreplaceable genetic bio-diversity. If these ancient forests, and their indigenous peoples and diversity are destroyed, the Copenhagen talks will be no more than hot air and will give us no hope. Never was the saying that "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" more apt.
West Didsbury, Manchester