Attending an Earth Day celebration to watch the release of a rehabilitated bald eagle in Minnesota in 1988 or 89, my cousin, Autumn, and myself were asked to participate in an Earth Day rap. Autumn had to memorize the line “Recycle your glass, Cass” and I had “Save the rainforest Delores.” I recall a third child had “Lower your thermostat, Pat.” That day is so ingrained in my head; I recall very specific questions that ran through my mind. “Does anyone really go by the name Cass? What is a thermostat?” And, “Though I love the rainforest, what could I possibly do to help?”
Save the rainforest, Delores. Nice.
Here we are, almost thirty years later. I still have yet to meet a person named Cass. Fortunately I do know what a thermostat is (and why we Minnesotans should lower it). But the persistent question remains… How can I help save the rainforest? We all see Nature, National Geographic, and BBC specials on deforestation. And perhaps you have even heard about the loss of orangutan habitat from palm oil plantations. But unless I live in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, how could I possibly affect the mass destruction of our precious resources?
I noticed a lot of palm oil plantations in my travels through peninsular Malaysia in August 2016. It was depressing to say the least, but I knew little details and hoped they were somehow non-destructive plantations. This year, traveling through Malaysian Borneo with the SEASFiRE team, I have again experienced the shock of witnessing the landscape abruptly change from lush rainforest to the ubiquitous oil palms.
I encourage you to watch the two minute videos of my view from the van as we traveled from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan, Sabah.
The first video is from the first leg of the 5 hour trip. You see a small roadside town with a thick backdrop of tall trees. This is some of the little remaining primary forest, forest that has not been degraded or deforested. If you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of immaculate butterflies, playful Macaques, or a colorful Hornbill. I feel small in its presence and honored to see the sight.
The second video is after crossing in to the lowlands, where much of the original rainforest has been cleared for palm oil plantations. Historically, a lot of forest clearing for agriculture has been done by fire. And though we can assume people mean well and do not wish to harm animals, destroy their habitat, and decimate plants that hold cures to human diseases, in the end, the forest is diminishing at an alarming rate.
Below are some helpful headlines about the alarming rate of deforestation in Borneo:
- The Bornean Rainforest is between 130 and 140 million years old.
- From 1970 to 2012, Borneo decreased from 75 to 28 percent primary forest cover.
- 71 % of forest destruction between 2000 and 2012 was due to conversion to agriculture, primarily oil palm plantations, often by means of burning.
- 3 million hectares of forest were cleared for Palm Oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia between 2000 and 2012.
- Malaysia and Indonesia produce 85% of the world’s Palm Oil.
- Oil Palms reach maturity in five years and their fruits can be harvested twice per month.
- Palm oil is used in 50% of processed foods worldwide, including chocolate, instant noodles, peanut butter, cookies, and crackers. It is also found in detergents, toothpaste, and biodiesel.
And again I ask, what can we do? No doubt it will take massive change from consumers, lobbyists, private and public organizations, local communities, government regulations, and education as a whole, we can all make small, yet impactful changes from home. Let’s make a goal of reducing the global need for palm oil.
A quick check of my kitchen pantry revealed the following palm oil-containing foods:
- Quaker Instant Oatmeal: Strawberries and Cream
- Joy Mini Cups (ice cream cones)
- Ritz Crackers
- Cheez-It Crackers
- Air Heads Xtreme Bites
- Pillsbury Toaster Strudel Pastries
- Kellog’s Eggo French Toaster Sticks: Cinnamon
- Nissan Top Ramen: Chicken Flavor
- Global Brands Sweet Obsession Milk Chocolate
- Loretta Pancake Mix: Light and Fluffy
Now, we can’t assume all palm oil is bad. There is an effort to produce palm oil using thoughtful, non-destructive, sustainable techniques. It is not clear whether these efforts are doing well, but the overall movement is a step in the right direction.
The Union of Concerned Scientists rates companies that use Palm Oil, giving higher scores to those whom use Palm Oil from more sustainable and less destructive means.
Notable scored companies include Nestle, Ben and Jerry’s, Ritz, and Oreo. Nestle received their highest score. And I would expect nothing less than an excellent score from Ben and Jerry’s, as it is known the founders are environmental activists. And to my dismay, Burt’s Bees received the lowest score possible, a 0 out of 100. This is appalling, as the company markets themselves as natural, organic, and healthy.
In summary, I urge you to use less palm oil. Inform yourselves; read the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report. Spread the word. And save the rainforest (Delores!)