In a move that has already incited outrage among environmental activists, Malaysia's Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) will soon break ground on a joint venture with a Brazilian firm to establish 75,000-250,000 acres of oil palm plantations in the heart of Brazil's Amazon rainforest. The advance of oil palm development to produce palm oil for use as cooking oil and eventually fuel has already decimated rainforests throughout Malaysia and Indonesia. According to environmentalists, some 30 square miles of carbon-and biodiversity-rich habitat is being cleared a day to provide cooking oil and transport biodiesel. And while oil palm agro fuel is being touted as a climate change mitigation move, rainforest clearance leads to significantly more carbon release than its production.
This land grab is a project of Sime Darby, a Malaysian palm oil producer that will invest $800 million for 500,000 acres of palm oil and rubber plantations in Liberia. Dr. Glen Barry, president of Ecological Internet, a climate and environmental portal and a global spokesperson on behalf of environmental sustainability, said, "This flood of land grabs by emerging nations, mostly land under customary land tenure, is eerily reminiscent of past and ongoing European and U.S. colonial practices. We are witnessing the intensification of social turmoil caused by climate change, land and water scarcity, and overpopulation and inequitable consumption." Barry added, "Global ecological sustainability and local well-being depend critically upon ending all industrial development in the world's remaining old forests-including plantations, logging, mining, and dams."
Instead of responding positively to criticism of the Malaysian government and Sime Darby's expansion of oil palm plantations into Brazil and Liberia's rainforests, the government is resorting to censorship to squelch dissent. According to Ecological Internet, references to the plans to develop oil palm plantations in South America are being systematically removed from the Malaysian government's Internet servers. And some emails about the project through, Streamyx, the main Internet service provider in Malaysia, are not being delivered.
In 2003, attempts were made to slow the destruction of rainforests by palm oil plantations with the creation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organization that linked growers, transporters, and consumers of palm oil. Yet since then, only a small amount of certified palm oil has entered the marketplace. Disappointingly, despite many high-profile commitments to increase the use of sustainable palm oil, only one percent of the available sustainably certified palm oil on the market today has been bought, according to figures released by the World Wildlife Fund.
The British food retailer, Sainsbury's, was among the first to buy certified sustainable palm oil, moving toward a goal of using only certified oil in its products by 2014, and in May, Unilever announced plans to use only palm oil certified as environmentally sustainable. Unilever CEO Patrick Cescau said the company has been working with RSPO since 2004, the company plans to trace the origins of all palm oil it uses in Europe by 2012, ensuring that it sourcing only certified palm oil by 2015.
It would be nice if food manufacturers and retailers would take a cue from these two, especially since as a replacement for trans fatty acids (trans fats or hydrogenated fats) palm oil is not a particularly healthy substitute. A study supported by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) suggest that following a diet moderately high in palm oil, or saturated fat would result in unfavorably high levels of LDL cholesterol as compared to a diet enriched with canola or soybean oil. The authors of the study stated that palm oil is not a good substitute for trans fats by the food industry. The World Health Organization actually warns that there is "convincing evidence" that the palmatic acid in palm oil increases the risk of heart disease. To put it simply, not only is palm oil bad for our future on the planet, it's bad for our health too.
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