Just 30 years ago, the rainforests of Southeast Asia covered vast swaths of Indonesia and Malaysia with a verdant canopy of biodiversity. A cacophony of sounds—birds chirping, insects buzzing, orangutans calling—filled the air, echoes of one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. Then the oil palm plantations came, cutting down tract after tract of ancient forest to make room for one of the world’s next big cash crops.
Now, much of the rainforest on Indonesia and Malaysia is gone, lost to acres of oil palms planted by international conglomerates and other causes. Despite the high ecological cost of palm oil, its cheap price has kept demand high. With little room to expand, corporations have their sights set on a new location: Africa. The hot, humid climate on parts of the continent is perfect for palm oil plantations.
These are also areas that are home to dwindling populations of the world’s great apes, such as chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. New research published today in Current Biology mapped the locations of planned oil palm plantations with the remaining great ape habitats in western Africa. With ape populations already under threat from hunting and habitat loss, oil palm plantations are threatening what’s left. The results show that the world’s hunger for this cheap vegetable oil may be the death knell for our primate cousins.
“If industrial palm oil plantations come to western Africa, I don’t know if conservation can succeed there. At some point, the whole system will just fall apart,” said Joshua Linder, a primatologist at James Madison University.
The oil palm is native to Africa and has been used there for thousands of years. Oil palm plantations, however, are a new phenomenon, around 30 years old. Always on the lookout for cheaper versions of popular ingredients, companies happened across palm oil as a good vegetable oil substitute. Large plantations devoted to growing oil palms and then processing the kernels began to spring up in Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia. In fact, its cheapness is the main thing that palm oil has going for it.
“It’s not a particularly healthy oil, but it’s extremely cheap,” said Serge Wich, a primatologist at Liverpool John Moores University.
Palm oil is so cheap because the trees are extremely productive. They can begin to bear fruit within just four years, and continue to do so for around 25 years.
“Oil palms are very lucrative, very quickly,” said Lisa Curran, an anthropologist and conservation expert at Stanford University.
The advent of large-scale palm oil production made it more and more attractive to manufacturers. Soon, you could find products containing palm oil on every supermarket shelf in the country. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that around half of products found in major supermarkets contain palm oil—and it’s frequently found in our favorite snacks. The Girl Scouts uses palm oil to make its cookies, as do manufacturers of ice cream, crackers, packaged breads, and margarine. It’s also commonly used as cooking oil in India, China, and Africa.
Nor is palm oil used just in food. Because it is semi-solid at room temperature, manufacturers of soaps, shampoos, detergents, and cosmetics have turned to palm oil for their products. It’s also being used in biodiesel. This explosion in demand from all corners of the market has made oil palm plantations more lucrative than ever.
As the acreage devoted to the production and manufacturing of palm oil has increased, so has the environmental degradation it causes. Oil palms are tropical trees and thrive in rainforests, some of the regions on Earth with the highest biodiversity. To make room for these plantations, vast areas of rainforest are felled, which leads to primary and secondary loss of species. Some species die off right away, either because the plants are removed or because they’ve lost a place to live, eat, and mate. Other species losses take more time and occur due to landscape fragmentation.
Companies tend to create oil palm plantations in large tracts, many of which adjoin neighboring plantations. When trees are removed for oil palms or through logging, animals are left with a patchwork forest, containing lots of small pieces of land that don’t directly connect to each other. Many animals won’t cross the fields, due to lack of ability, fear of predation, or other reasons. This means that their gene pools stagnate and accumulate increasingly harmful mutations. Ultimately, the population collapses.
It’s this environmental destruction that has most aroused the ire of environmentalists and conservationists. They have been fighting back, putting pressure on conglomerates like Cargill to harvest oil palms sustainably. Some foods are already advertising their use of sustainable palm oil, which is grown on lands that have been managed responsibly and are considered too degraded for other purposes.
It’s not a bad step, Curran said, but definitions of “degraded” vary extensively. In Indonesia, she says, anything that’s not pristine forest can be called degraded. This means that selectively logged and otherwise well-managed forests of the Indonesian lowlands—up to 80 percent of the acreage there—are defined as degraded. Brazil, which was long eyed for its potential for hosting oil palm plantations, has a much stricter definition of degraded land and much more stringent governmental oversight. As a result, corporations have stayed in countries where they can more easily run the show.
International conglomerates are running into a major problem. Most of the available land suitable for oil palm plantations has already been leased in Indonesia and Malaysia, forcing these companies to consider returning the oil palm to its ancestral African home. This poses a problem for many of the world’s great apes, which are concentrated in regions amenable to oil palm plantations.
“Oil palms need sufficient rainfall to grow, and areas with lots of rain are also areas with high levels of biodiversity,” Wich says. “All of the great apes are already endangered, and then you add on even more forest loss from oil palms, the situation is going to be even worse.”
For their Current Biology study, Wich and colleagues analyzed data about existing tracts of land leased to companies intending to create oil palm plantations throughout western and central Africa and the current habitat of four species of great ape. They found that 60 percent of plantations overlapped with great ape habitat across the entire area. In some areas, the overlap was even higher: 100 percent of plantations in Ghana overlapped.
Curran says that it’s important to note that these are, nonetheless, estimates. Land-use mapping is not an exact science, nor are there guarantees that land leased for use will be developed into palm oil plantations. “Clearly this area needs much more study,” Curran says.
Her inner cynic, honed after more than two decades studying palm oil plantations, wonders if these studies might be too late to change anything. Once a lease is signed, the most people can generally accomplish is “technical tinkering rather than radical reform,” she says.
Neither Curran nor Linder are against the cultivation of oil palms for human consumption. They do, however, warn of the widespread environmental destruction caused by industrial oil palm production. It destroys not just forest, but also small farms, community cohesion, and water quality.
“This isn’t just about great apes,” Curran says. “Great apes are just the canary in the coal mine.”