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The Palm Oil Industry Promises Reform, But There’s Still No Sign of Change

Animals
Palm oil survivors. Wildlife Photographer of the Year / Aaron Gekoski

It was 10 years ago that Greenpeace first published an investigation into Indonesia's palm oil industry.

We showed that the world's biggest brands got their palm oil from companies destroying Indonesia's rainforests—threatening local people as well as tigers and orangutans.


As people learned the truth about their shampoo, cosmetics and chocolate bars, brands and their suppliers started to feel the pressure. In 2013, Wilmar became the first palm oil trader to adopt a No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE) policy. Others followed suit, and by the end of 2014, most household brands and big palm oil companies had sworn to protect Indonesia's rainforests.

Greenpeace doesn't take companies at their word—we watch them closely to make sure they're keeping their promises. A couple of years ago, we investigated household brands and weren't that impressed with what we found. So this year, we took a look at the biggest palm oil traders—the companies that brands get their palm oil from.

The results are alarming. Not one of the traders could prove it wasn't buying from palm oil companies that destroyed rainforests. Most could not even say when there would be no deforestation in their supply chains. Instead of cutting out dirty palm oil, traders have a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy—they pretend everything is under control while Indonesia's forests go up in smoke.

Indonesia's people and environment are paying for the industry's failure. The country has lost 31 million hectares of forest—an area almost the size of Germany—since 1990. A recent study on Borneo and Sumatra orangutans showed that the population has significantly declined, with destruction of their habitat a leading cause of the crisis. Forest destruction has also contributed to the annual fires and haze crisis that threatens the health of people across Southeast Asia. One study estimated that the 2015 fires crisis contributed to more than 100,000 premature deaths. NGOs have also uncovered widespread human rights abuses in palm oil plantations, including child labor and worker exploitation.

This should be a wake-up call for brands like PepsiCo, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Mondelez. These brands promised their customers they would cut ties with forest destruction. For too long, brands have passed the buck to their suppliers—the traders whose progress we assessed and found wanting.

It's time brands took responsibility for the palm oil they're using. The first step is to tell us where their palm oil really comes from. Then brands need to clean up their supply chains and cut out anyone still destroying forests. That's the only way we'll get this destructive industry to change.

Thankfully it's not all bad news. Just a few weeks ago, scientists discovered a whole new species of orangutan in Sumatra! This is an amazing discovery—but like the rest of the orangutan population, there's a big risk that their habitat gets destroyed. It's up to us to make sure that these amazing creatures have healthy branches to swing on in the future.

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Environmental Investigation Agency

By Genevieve Belmaker

Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.

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Jessica Kourkounis / Stringer

The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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Leaked documents show that Jair Bolsonaro's government intends to use the Brazilian president's hate speech to isolate minorities living in the Amazon region. The PowerPoint slides, which democraciaAbierta has seen, also reveal plans to implement predatory projects that could have a devastating environmental impact.

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Drinking water treated with fluoride during pregnancy may lead to lower IQs in children, a controversial new study has found.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned Thursday of a drug-resistant strain of salmonella newport linked to the overuse of antibiotics in cattle farming.

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The Democratic National Committee (DNC) voted down a resolution calling for an official, party-sanctioned debate on the climate crisis, ABC News reported Thursday.

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