Exploring and Addressing Sumatra’s Palm Oil Problem
When you think of Sumatra, you probably imagine beautiful rainforests and incredible biodiversity. Indeed, the lush Indonesian island is home to thousands of different species, including Sumatran tigers, rhinos, elephants, orangutans, and sun bears.
The Leuser Ecosystem – a six and a half million-acre expanse of protected tropical lowland rainforests, mountains, and peat swamps in the province of Aceh – is home to many of these creatures and has been named one of the most important areas of intact forest in all of southeast Asia. Venturing into the area is both awe-inspiring and heart-wrenching, as the conflict between conservation and industry becomes all too clear.
Most journeys start in Medan – the bustling capital of North Sumatra, where rickshaws weave their way through traffic and delicious local cuisine is everywhere you turn. The city of about two million largely acts as a jumping-off point for other adventures, and a three-hour drive will take you into the heart of Bukit Lawang, a small village situated inside Gunung Leuser National Park that’s well known for orangutan treks.
The drive takes you through swaths of hundreds of thousands of palm trees, which look beautiful at first glance, lined up in perfect rows. But the green palms with their pineapple-like trunks hold a dirty secret: they’re producers of the world’s cheapest and most commonly used oil.
The problem with palm oil
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that is used in just about every product you can imagine, from cookies and crackers to toothpastes, beauty products, and cleaning agents. It comprises about 30 percent of global vegetable oil production and is found in nearly half of all household products in many developed countries.
The problem isn’t so much with the oil itself, though, as the way it’s produced. The industry is, by and large, completely unsustainable and linked to such pressing issues as climate change, indigenous rights abuses, community water shortages, animal cruelty, habitat degradation, and deforestation. According to the WWF, an area the size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour – yes, hour – to make way for palm oil production.
And in the Leuser, this spells trouble for critically endangered residents like the Sumatran orangutan, which has lost more than 90 percent of its habitat and over 50,000 individuals over the last two decades as a result of palm oil plantation development. It also puts the livelihoods and food supply for local communities at risk, as they rely heavily on the natural services that the Leuser ecosystem provides.
The way forward
Unfortunately, the solution isn’t as a simple as stopping palm oil production; the industry brings stable employment to communities and much-needed revenue to the region. Resolving this issue means finding a balance between rebuilding the economy through sustainable development and protecting human rights and the ecosystem. Halting further deforestation and investing in ways to make current plantations more productive would be an ideal start.
While it may seem counterintuitive, responsible tourism also plays an important role in changing the narrative. Trekking through the dense forests of Gunung Leuser National Parks allows visitors – who are often from the countries that consume the most conflict palm oil – to see firsthand what’s at stake and get to know the majestic animals that rely on the rainforest for survival. The juxtaposition of palm oil plantations butted up alongside intact forest creates a powerful image that perfectly illustrates the immediate threat of encroachment.
Ultimately, it’s about getting the companies responsible for this problem to change their ways. Conflict palm oil is still the oil of choice for some of the biggest names in snack food, and they show little willingness to alter their practices. But consumer education is a powerful thing, and how this story ends may depend on how that knowledge is used.