A baby elephant nuzzles its mother in the Leuser Ecosystem on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Critical elephant habitat is being decimated to make room for palm oil plantations. Paul Hitlon / RAN

World's Biggest Brands Are Pushing Indonesia's Endangered Elephants to Extinction

By Emma Rae Lierley

The Leuser Ecosystem on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia thrums with life. It is an ancient, 6.5 million acres of lush rainforest and steamy peat swamps, and because of its rich biodiversity, is one of the most important rainforests still standing today.

Its clear rivers provide drinking water for millions of people and its lowland and mountainous rainforests are literally the last place on Earth where Sumatran elephants, orangutans, tigers, rhinos and sunbears still coexist in the wild. Globally, we all depend on it for the climate regulating effects such a large carbon-sink can have.

And yet, the Leuser Ecosystem is being actively destroyed for palm oil and other industries.

A new field investigation released by Rainforest Action Network (RAN) exposes how one company is pumping conflict palm oil—palm oil connected to the clearance of tropical rainforests and the destruction of carbon-rich peatlands—into the global marketplace. The conflict palm oil coming out of the Leuser Ecosystem is shipped to the major brands whose products line store shelves the world over.

One of Sumatra's remaining and critically endangered baby elephants peers out from behind its mother's trunk in the Leuser Ecosystem. Paul Hilton / RAN

Palm oil has quickly become the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. It can be found in every room of the house, in products ranging from potato chips to laundry detergent, ice cream to cosmetics and cookies to cooking oil. The boom in palm oil has been driven, in part, by a demand in Western countries for shelf-stable vegetable oils, used to replace the hydrogenated oils now despised for their transfats.

However, the palm oil industry is rife with issues, and conflict palm oil still dominates the market. Child labor, human trafficking, land grabbing, rainforest deforestation, endangered species habitat destruction and massive forest fires are all connected to the production of conflict palm oil.

PT. Agra Bumi Niaga (PT. ABN) clears forests in the Leuser Ecosystem for more palm oil plantations. RAN

An aerial view of the cleared forests by PT. ABN. RAN

This latest report is the second time RAN has blown the whistle on this company. The palm oil company, PT. Agra Bumi Niaga (PT. ABN), was first outed for clearing rainforest in the Leuser Ecosystem—despite an Indonesian-wide moratorium on forest clearance for new palm oil development—in a RAN field report in February 2017.

In this first report, RAN exposed both PT. ABN, the mill PT. ABN was supplying palm oil to, and the companies buying palm oil from that mill—major palm oil traders that supply many of the world's major snack food brands with the palm oil that is used in their products.

Workers load bunches of palm oil fruit on PT. ABN's palm oil plantation in the Leuser Ecosystem. RAN

This latest field investigation found that PT. ABN continued to clear forests even after it was first exposed, and simply moved its palm oil to a new mill, a few miles up the road from the first. And those major traders supplying palm oil to the rest of the marketplace were buying palm oil from this mill as well.

The palm oil company PT. ABN operates a 2,000-hectare plantation in the Leuser Ecosystem, on land that is known habitat for the Sumatran tiger and the critically endangered Sumatran elephant and orangutan. Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Ministry's own field assessment of the plantation—conducted in June 2016, as the Ministry was officially closing the plantation because it did not have a proper permit—recorded 22 Sumatran elephants living on the plantation itself.

Despite this, satellite images show that PT. ABN has reduced the area covered by forests from 420 hectares in June 2016, to a mere 88 hectares in April 2017.

After its first mill was exposed, PT. ABN switched to supplying palm oil from this concession to a mill called PT. Ensem Sawita, five miles up the road from the previous one. Supplier mill lists and maps published by six of the world's largest palm oil traders—Wilmar, Musim Mas, Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), Cargill, IOI and ADM—show that PT. Ensem Sawita has a track record of supplying palm oil to refineries, including in the U.S., Canada and Europe, which in turn supply all of the world's largest traders and global brands. Just those six traders alone are believed to have a combined palm oil market share of more than 60 percent.

Workers load trucks with palm oil fruit bunches on PT. ABN's plantation. RAN

This latest report shows that the biggest global brands, such as PepsiCo, McDonald's, Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg's, Mars and Procter & Gamble and many more, are connected to this single deforestation event through their sourcing of palm oil from these palm oil traders.

The path the palm oil truck takes, from the plantation to the mill that supplies the rest of the supply chain. RAN

As reported in The Guardian, a representative for the mill, PT. Ensem Sawita, confirmed the findings of the report. Expressing regret for the failure of sourcing from PT. ABN, they claimed confusion over a past name change for the palm oil company, despite the fact that the name change was previously reported as well. Many of the palm oil traders and global brands have corporate policies and commitments in place that are meant to ensure they do not source palm oil connected to deforestation, development on peatlands, or exploitation. Yet time and time again, corporations fail to do the due diligence necessary to ensure conflict palm oil is never a part of the products they sell.

An aerial view of PT. Ensem Sawita's mill, which turns the palm oil fruit bunches into crude palm oil.RAN

Satellite images show that PT. ABN has reduced the area covered by forests from 420 hectares in June 2016 to a mere 66 hectares in June 2017. Sixteen additional hectares were lost in June 2017 alone. Above, deforested areas are shown in red and the map dates are from top to bottom: June 2016 — August 2016; June 2016 — November 2016; June 2016 — January 2017; June 2016 — June 2017.

Palm oil is big business. It's found in half of all packaged goods in the average grocery store. RAN's latest field investigation illuminates the dirty supply chain of palm oil, connecting some of the biggest brands in the world with active bulldozing of endangered elephant habitat in the Leuser Ecosystem. From this one case of ongoing deforestation, plantation company PT. ABN pumped conflict palm oil all over the world, as the graphic below illustrates.


Some companies are working to solve the problem with palm oil, including those working with the Palm Oil Innovation Group, which demonstrates that truly responsible palm oil is possible. Responsible palm oil is produced without the destruction of rainforests and sensitive peatland areas and also upholds labor and human rights. Through the combined pressure of groups like POIG, international and local NGOs and concerned consumers, the palm oil industry will hopefully reform itself, before it's too late.

One of the remaining herds of the Leuser Ecosystem's critically endangered Sumatran elephants.Paul Hilton / RAN

But companies must do more. RAN's latest report exposes the actors involved in, or profiting from, the destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem. Despite the wave of "No Deforestation" commitments that have been made by countless corporations, the global palm oil supply chain remains tainted with conflict palm oil grown at the expense of the Leuser Ecosystem.

If more immediate action is not taken to enforce "No Deforestation" policies, these brands will be remembered as the corporate giants responsible for the destruction of the last place on Earth where Sumatran elephants, orangutans, rhinos and tigers roamed side by side.

Voice your concern. Tell PepsiCo, Nestlé, Unilever, Mars, Kellogg's, McDonald's and Procter & Gamble to put elephants over profits and end the destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem.

Emma Rae Lierley is the forest communications manager at Rainforest Action Network.

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