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.
The U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Tuesday saying that the Federal Environmental Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) failed to adequately review the environmental impacts of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the fracked gas Sabal Trail pipeline, which runs more than 500 miles through Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
As ocean waters warm and acidify, corals across the globe are disappearing. Desperate to prevent the demise of these vital ecosystems, researchers have developed ways to "garden" corals, buying the oceans some much-needed time. University of Miami Rosenstiel School marine biologist Diego Lirman sat down with Josh Chamot of Nexus Media to describe the process and explain what's at stake. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is killing coral?
I wish we had an easy, straightforward answer for what's killing corals. We know there are many, many different factors influencing coral abundance, diversity, distribution and health these days, but I think the specific answer varies based on where you are.
Temperatures play a major role at global scales, and then you have all of these other, more local factors like disease, physical impacts of storms, or ship groundings.
Researcher Stephanie Schopmeyer prepares to out-plant Staghorn coral onto a Miami reef. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
We had the dredging of the Port of Miami channel a couple of years ago and that caused a lot of localized mortality due to sediment burial and sediment stress. You also have land-based sources of pollution that can damage by location and nutrient influence that causes algal overgrowth of corals.
Local factors are superimposed on regional factors directly related to global climate change. Changes in temperature, more temperature extremes, acidification of the water, changes in storm frequency and sea level rise— all are at different scales — but they all combine to cause coral mortality.
Factors vary both spatially and temporally, but the outcomes are all the same. Regardless of where you are, we've lost a tremendous amount of coral.
Nursery-raised Staghorn coral out-planted onto a reef by a citizen scientist.
In the face of all those threats, can restoration work?
Historically, restoration was developed and used for acute disturbances. A ship runs aground, and so then there's a recovery, and funds are allocated to recovering the reef structure at a given location, and then corals are planted on top of that. But as global conditions decline for coral reefs, there's now a need to scale up. So, we're not just dealing with the localized impact—we're looking at species declining throughout their range.
We need other tools at larger scales, and that's where coral reef gardening has come into play, because it works at larger scales compared to just dumping cement and rebuilding reef structures, costly endeavors that recover just a very small footprint. We're growing and planting these organisms.
Do you worry about planted coral dominating the reefs?
Initially, these techniques were developed for fast-growing corals. The genus that we're focusing on, Acropora, is threatened, so these are very important reef-building species.
When abundant, they monopolize shallow environments. They form thickets, extensive areas of high-density colonies. That's the way they used to grow, until about three to four decades ago when they got wiped out by disease and other factors. The branching corals that we're working with grow between 10 and 15 cm per branch per year, so that's very fast growth.
Through recent advances in coral aquaculture, we're now also able to grow massive species, the ones that grow very slowly. Mote Marine Lab has developed microfragmentation techniques where they can cut coral colonies very, very small and make them grow very, very fast. Although we focused on branching corals initially, now most of the programs, especially here in Florida, are expanding onto other threatened species.
Citizen scientists plant coral. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
Can these efforts solve the problem, or are they a placeholder until climate stabilizes?
You hit the nail on the head. One of the early criticisms of reef restoration was the scale issue and spending a lot of resources working on a very small footprint.
We've dealt with that now, over the past 10 years we've expanded to the point where we're growing thousands and thousands of corals—we're planting thousands and thousands of corals—so that issue of scale is no longer a valid criticism.
The other major criticism is that, even though we're planting a lot of corals, we're planting them onto environments where the same stressors that caused their initial mortality are in place. Now there is ocean acidification and increased temperatures, so things have gotten, in some cases, progressively worse.
Staghorn corals create a sustainable source of corals for use in restoration. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
That is a valid concern if we were just planting corals, but we're not just doing that. We're still concentrating on all of the other aspects of reef restoration, setting up marine protected areas to protect fish stocks and coral impacts, working to curb land-based sources of pollution, and setting up sedimentation and nutrient controls. And then, on a much larger scale, we're all trying to curb carbon emissions, trying to limit the greenhouse impacts and acidification impacts. All these tools just help us buy time.
We're also doing a lot of genomics work to see how corals can increase their resilience. A colleague of mine here at the Rosenstiel School at University of Miami, Andrew Baker, is stress-hardening corals. He works on coral symbiosis, and he found that by applying a little bit of non-lethal stress, he can make corals shuffle their Zooxanthellae, which are the endosymbiotic microalgae that provide energy to the corals. In that process, they're able to uptake Zooxanthellae that are more thermally tolerant. So, through the forced shuffling of symbionts, you may be able to buy these corals one or two degrees of tolerance, so that they become more tolerant to bleaching in future years. That is cutting-edge science.
We're trying to actually find out what makes corals survive, and trying to beef up their defenses and their resilience over time. And that's because we have access to all these coral genotypes through the active propagation from coral gardening.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
By Karen Perry Stillerman
This job has responsibility for scientific integrity at the USDA, as well as oversight of the department's various research arms and multi-billion dollar annual investments in agricultural research and education that are essential to farmers and eaters alike.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club lodged formal comments with the federal government Monday opposing a massive gas fracking project that spans 220 square miles of public land in Wyoming south of Yellowstone National Park.
The Normally Pressured Lance gas field would destroy wildlife habitat and worsen ozone pollution, a major cause of childhood asthma, in areas already suffering from extreme air pollution.
Sierra received complete surveys from a record-breaking 227 schools—in 36 states, the District of Columbia, and for the first time ever, Canada.
By Andy Rowell
The decades-long struggle for social and environmental justice in the Niger Delta continues, largely unseen by the wider world.
On Aug. 11, hundreds of people from the Niger Delta stormed the Belema flow station gas plant owned by Shell in the Rivers State region of the Delta. The plant transports crude oil to the Bonny Light export terminal, from where it is shipped overseas.
The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said in a statement the Interior Department has directed it to cease its study on the potential health risks for people living near surface coal mines in Central Appalachia.
The Interior Department, which committed more than $1 million to the study last year, has begun an agency-wide review of grants over $100,000 because of the "Department's changing budget situation."