18 Jan 2012 13 Respondents
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By David Seedhouse
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The palm-oil story started in 1848, when it was discovered that the oil palm, a native of West Africa, grew well in the Far East. Its giant bunches of red fruits are rich in oil that proved useful in soap and later as a lubricant for steam engines. Demand grew, and plantations sprouted in Malaysia in the 1930s. As the industry matured, cultivation spread to Indonesia. These two countries today produce 90% of the world’s palm oil.

These days it is used in a vast array of food and consumer products, from peanut butter, margarine and ice cream to lipstick and shaving foam. Palm oil makes shampoos and soaps more creamy. WWF, an environmental group, says it is used in 50% of all packaged supermarket products. It is also a common cooking oil across Asia. It is becoming more popular as a biofuel. Laws that encourage the use of biofuels are adding to demand.

The charges against palm oil are serious: environmental groups regard it as a danger not only to Asian wildlife but also to the health of the planet. Between 1967 and 2000 the area under cultivation in Indonesia expanded from less than 2,000 square kilometres to more than 30,000 square kilometres. Deforestation in Indonesia for palm oil and illegal logging is so rapid that a report in 2007 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said most of the country’s forest might be destroyed by 2022. Although the rate of forest loss has declined in Indonesia in the past decade, UNEP says the spread of palm-oil plantations is one of the greatest threats to forests in Indonesia and Malaysia.

In Sumatra and Borneo, palm-oil expansion threatens elephants, tigers and rhinos, as well as orangutans. Enormous amounts of carbon dioxide are released as forests and peatlands are destroyed. Deforestation makes Indonesia one of the world’s largest carbon-dioxide emitters. On the bright side, it is true that palm oil has contributed to economic growth in the countries that produce it. But even that has been tarnished in some cases by social conflict, for example when locals or indigenous groups have been turfed off their land to make room for plantations.

Recently, the world's second biggest palm oil company has agreed to halt deforestation in valuable areas of Indonesian forest, bowing to pressure from western food processors and conservationists.

Golden Agri-Resources Limited (GAR) has committed itself to protecting forests and peatlands with a high level of biodiversity, or which provide major carbon sinks, as part of an agreement with conservation group the Forest Trust.

However, the agreement will still leave GAR free to exploit other areas of forest, and land that is judged to be of lower conservation value.

What do you think? Do you agree that forests should be protected? Or is progress more important? The move toward more biofuels would be slowed down.

If palm oil makers are restricted in what they can do, then jobs will be lost and prices of plam oil will rise. Is this a price worth paying for trees and animals?
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It is proposed that Indonesian palm oil growers are allowed to use any land unless it's special 'high conservation' land

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