Cover picture: Palm oil plantations from the air by

When I glimpsed a look out of my window during a flight over Malaysia, in 2017, I saw the extent of palm oil production in the country which produces with Indonesia together about 85% of the palm oil traded worldwide.

I didn’t see any rainforest, but thousands of hectares of mono-cultivated oil palms, shining chimerical green in the hot equator sun. The green of the palms is malicious and one has to be well informed to know, that this view has nothing to do with untouched nature, for which Malaysia and Indonesia used to be known for.

Extent of deforestation in Borneo between 1950 and 2020 by

Since 1990, one-fourth of Indonesia’s rainforests, have already been destroyed and the Orangutan population has halved. Furthermore, the clearances increase rapidly each year, especially on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, which are home to the last wild Orangutans of planet earth.

The reason for those clearances is the constant expansion of Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s oil palm plantations due to the world’s insatiable demand for palm oil.

Palm Oil Production in Indonesia

Used by humans for centuries, palm oil is a very versatile oil.

Nowadays, palm oil can be found in Cosmetics, such as shampoos and lotions, household goods, like candles and detergents, in esculents, such as Ferrero’s “Nutella”, packet soups, crisps, margarine and ice cream, to just list some examples.

Furthermore, palm oil is the cheapest plant oil worldwide and can be found in every second supermarket product.

Consequently, the worldwide consumption of the versatile oil has more than doubled since 1998. 

Indonesia, directly located on the Equator, is not only the biggest island-state of the world but also the biggest palm oil producer in the world. 45% of the worldwide demanded palm oil comes from Indonesia.

As a consequence of the growing global demand of palm oil, the trade and production of palm oil is a booming business. Local, as well as foreign investors keep investing in the expansion of palm oil plantations at the expense of Indonesia’s last remaining rainforests.

The most common way to expand oil palm plantations is by fire clearances, for which huge areas of Borneo’s, as well as Sumatra’s rainforests get burned down. A business, which is highly unsustainable, as it destroys the richest biotopes of this planet and furthermore causes grave consequences for the people of Sumatra and Borneo, the two islands on which the most palm oil is grown.

In 2016, Indonesia exported palm oil with a value of 14,4 Billion US-Dollar (10% of Indonesia’s total export volume) and had the worst man-made forest fires ever listed, when an area of 20 000 square kilometers (half the size of the Netherlands) got burned down. Rainforests, as well as the peat soil they are located on, impound huge amounts of CO-2, which gets released during fire clearance.

Therefore, Indonesia is the 11th position, of the world-wide CO-2 emissions comparison by the Global Carbon Atlas.

Trucks, loaded with harvested oil palm fruits are waiting in front of a palm oil factory in Central Sumatra

Social conflicts due to Indonesia’s palm oil industry

According to a study, published by a research cooperation of the Harvard University and Columbia University (USA), 100 000 people died on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra in 2015 because of grave respiratory diseases, caused by the toxic smog of fire clearing. Especially dangerous is the high particulate pollution. 

“How much more do you want?” – Protestors at a rally in Sumatra Source:

As a consequence of the ability to overcome the barrier between lungs and bloodstream, the particulate matter gets deeply into the lungs, where it can cause harmful diseases, such as asthma, cancer, heart attacks or strokes. Furthermore, the massive fire clearances are not only depriving the Indonesian population’s health, but they are also depriving its whole livelihood. 27% of the Indonesian population (about 70 million people) live sustainable as farmers, huntsman or gatherers inside Indonesia’s dense jungles and even build their homes in the threatened green.

Officially documented land ownership, as well as proprietary rights, are something totally unknown to Indonesia’s indigenous population. Therefore, conflicts became every day’s matter in Indonesia, which usually end in brutal disputes and relocations, in favor of the great landowners. The root of this problem is, that corrupt Indonesian politicians sell ground, which used to be the property of indigenous tribes since decades, to great landowners, who clear it by fire and cultivate oil palm plantations on it.

According to Greenpeace, 620 000 Hectare rainforest, primary as well as secondary rainforest, gets cleared by fire each year in Indonesia.

Sumatra during the heavy forest fires in 2015; Source:

Money talks, but only in favor for the rich and powerful.

A guard of the infamous “Rimob” forces, known for their brutality, in front of recently cleared land; Source:

Protests against the corrupt and invidious behavior of big landowners or foreign companies, get brutally beaten down in favor for those, who keep on filling up the pockets of local politicians, as well as judges and high ranked social security officers.

One example is the company Wilmar International, Asia’s biggest agrarian company, furthermore the biggest fabricator and distributor of palm oil worldwide.

Wilmar serves well-known companies, such as Néstle, Cargill, Procter & Gamble or Kraft Foods and is the main supplier of the esculent company Unilever. With a yearly single usage of 1,5 million tons of palm oil, Unilever is the biggest consumer of palm oil, responsible for more than 100 land conflicts, as well as the deaths of thousands of different environmental activists and protestors on Borneo, according to the German non-governmental-organization “Rettet den Regenwald” (Eng.: Save The Rainforest).

A variety of snacks by brands which cooperate with Wilmar. Source:

Indonesia’s rainforest – the world’s richest biotope

With 1.622 bird species and 37. 000 plant species, the tropical rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo are considered as the species-richest biotopes of planet Earth. Some endangered animals can only be found here, such as the last Orangutans, the Asian midget elephant, the rare Sumatra Rhino or the Sumatra tiger, of which only 400 exemplars are left.

As a result of the radical rainforest clearances in Malaysia and Indonesia, the majority of those rare animals is highly threatened to extinct soon and therefore listed on the red list of the IUCN.

One example are Orangutans, the most known and most impressive victims of Deforestation in Asia. To give an example, since 1999, the Orangutan population halved and Orangutans are nowadays only found on the islands of Borneo (54 000 exemplars) and Sumatra (16 000 exemplars). 

Orangutans are loners, eat young leaves, termites, tree bark, several fruits and plants. During their kilometer-long wanderings through the dense jungles, Orangutans increase the rainforest’s biodiversityby dropping out seeds of plants, which they cannot digest. This behavior is in favor for the plant diversity of the rainforest, as some seeds can’t sprout before crossing the digestion of certain animals. 

Even though the DNA of humans and Orang Utans is to 97% identical, the protection and conversation of Orang Utans only plays an underpart in worldwide geopolitics. To cover the rising global demand, the government of Indonesia wants to plant additional 26,5 million hectares with Oil Palms until 2025.

It’s blatant, that huge areas of rainforest will have to be cleared to fulfil this demand.

Sustainable palm oil remains a utopia?

As a global and immediate change to other plant oils would expend much more space and natural resources, palm oil is not replaceable yet.

Palm oil is considered as the most useful plant oil in the world due to its high efficiency, its cheap price and its high versatility. Since many years, it is the aim of environmental activists to force companies to produce palm oil sustainable, instead of threating humans, animals and nature, by destroying huge areas of rainforests to cultivate oil palms.

One method, which could save the conversation of the last Orang Utans, as well as the tropical forests of Borneo and Sumatra, is to bring environmental activists, as well as palm oil profiteers on one table and find solutions for the diverse problems which the production of palm oil produces. 

RSPO sign: “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil”; source:

An example is the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), a non-profit organization, founded by the WWF, that unites stakeholders from the 7 sectors of the palm oil industry, to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.

Unfortunately, the dispersal of NGOs and palm oil profiteers is highly unequal.

40 representatives of environmental protection companies and social non-governmental organizations (NGOs)are part of the roundtable, in contrast to 951 palm oil producers, banks and investors, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers and retailers.The profiteers are so powerful that members, even though they break the rules, aren’t sanctioned or forced to leave the roundtable. The RSPO controls itself independently so that it is unclear which rules are being followed and which aren’t.

In addition to that, the RSPO-certificate is bound to projects, not companies, which means that a company can adorn itself with the certificate, even though it may produce unsustainably in other locations. 

Consequently, to this overwhelming power of companies and stakeholders, environmental organizations claim that the RSPO is a “green-washing”- certificate, a certificate which consumers associate as environmentally friendly, even though it isn’t.

The Orang Utan’s extinction is closer than ever

Even though more and more environmental organizations, as well as social initiatives start working on solutions, there is no proper system yet, which could handle the huge problems, unsustainable palm oil production provokes in Indonesia. 

Furthermore, the enmeshments between banks, the Indonesian state, the Indonesian military and the palm oil companies are so strong, that Indonesia is ranked as number 96 of 180 listed countries in the corruption index of “Transparency International”. One example of those strong enmeshments and corruption in Indonesia is, that Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, already promised a stop of rainforest fire clearing in 2014. Two years before Indonesia had its heaviest man-made wildfires ever recorded.

Indonesia’s widespread corruption in the sectors of Legislative, Executive, as well Judicative is the main reason, why progress in favor for human rights, animal rights and the conversation of rainforests is so slow. 

Joko Widodo at a press conference in Jakarta; Once known as the fighter of corruption, his reputation crumbles;

Due to the world’s insatiable demand for palm oil, the Orang Utan population has halved since 1999 and will be gone by 2050, experts say.

This apprehension affirmed itself, when I talked with Indonesians about Palm Oil production and its consequences, during my travels through Sumatra in 2018. 

One example of many is, that even national parks are in danger, areas which should be protected to conversate wildlife and respect local communities. The government of the autonomous region Aceh, in northern Sumatra, introduced a new land use planning law, which ascribes huge areas of the famous Leuser-Ecosystem to the mining, palm oil and timber industry. The law was implemented in 2018 even though, it contradicts Indonesian environmental laws. 

Another example of Indonesia’s omnipresent corruption.

What each of us can do about it

The only way to stop this insane destruction of the world’s richest biotopes would be an immediate stop of rainforest clearance in Sumatra and Borneo. Unfortunately, an immediate stop of rainforest clearance remains a utopia, due to the dizzying profits of palm oil producers, as well as missing awareness of us, the consumers of palm oil.

Therefore, it’s us, who bear the blame, when it comes to destruction of rainforests in order to plant oil palms. We, the consumers have to take that responsibility and start observing the things we consume more carefully. If it contains palm oil, leave it. The key is to lower the demand for palm oil and therefore the production of it. 

To spread awareness about the theme, joining public rallies or doing publications are as well, good ways of protest against the palm oil industry. As many people as possible have to be reached and informed about the harms, which the palm oil industry causes to humans, animals and nature.

There is no other way yet, to resist the continuous demolition of our world’s last rainforests and the extinction of rare species, as Orang Utans or Sumatra Tigers. 

If WE, the consumers, won’t ban palm oil from our daily life, the Orang Utan will soon be part of the foretime…

What do we want for our future? Preservation of the world’s richest eco-system (left) or unsustainable palm oil plantations (right)?

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