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Nisqually Tribal Council Member Hanford McCloud lights sacred fire to open up 17th Protecting Mother Earth conference. Rudi Tcruz

By Jade Begay and Ayşe Gürsöz

Even as the Trump administration rolls back regulations meant to protect Americans from pollution, the EPA recently released a report that finds that people of color are much more likely to breathe toxic air than their white counterparts. The study's basic findings—that non-whites bear a higher burden in terms of pollution that leads to a range of poor health outcomes—is supported by other similar studies, and underpins the issue of environmental injustice that impacts many politically marginalized communities.

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Sumatran elephant. Paul Hilton / Wildlife Conservation Society

Between Aug. 21 and Sept. 5, conflict palm oil grower PT. Tualang Raya cleared another 18 hectares of critical lowland rainforests inside the Leuser Ecosystem. This rogue actor has continued razing forests with impunity despite Rainforest Action Network exposing its ongoing destruction since September 2015.

PT. Tualang Raya is clearing in disregard of a government moratorium on forest clearing for palm oil development. According to satellite imagery analysis, PT. Tualang Raya has cleared a total of 205 hectares of forest since June 2016 when a government circular letter demanded that palm oil companies halt forest clearance.

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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

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.

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Top of JPMorgan Chase Tower, Dallas, Texas. Joe Mabel / Wikimedia

A report released Wednesday by Rainforest Action Network, BankTrack, Sierra Club and Oil Change International, in partnership with 28 organizations around the world, revealed that the world's biggest banks are continuing to fuel climate change through the financing of extreme fossil fuels.

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A new documentary produced and starring actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio premieres in Los Angeles today and will be broadcast globally in 45 languages in 171 countries on the National Geographic Channel starting Oct. 30, timed to air in advance of the November elections.

The film highlights the critical role forest destruction plays in driving carbon pollution into Earth's atmosphere and focuses specifically on how the rapid spread of industrial palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia are at the heart of this crisis. The film It is directed by Fisher Stevens who, like DiCaprio, is an Academy Award winner.

Watch the exclusive clip here:

The film captures DiCaprio's visit to the Leuser Ecosystem in Aceh, Indonesia, where extremely high rates of forest clearance have exacerbated the climate change dilemma. Indonesia is now one of the world's top carbon emitting countries, primarily due to the massive deforestation in the region. Before the Flood notes that as it was being filmed in late 2015, man-made fires in Indonesia were spewing more carbon pollution on a daily basis than the entire U.S. economy combined. These illegal fires are an annual occurrence as a method of clearing land for palm-oil plantations. And just more than a week ago, the Indonesian government again declared a national state of emergency due to the severe impacts caused by the out of control fires.

"This important film brings much needed attention to the destruction of rainforests for palm oil, which is a huge driver of global climate change. We must aggressively address the deforestation crisis in places like Indonesia's Leuser Ecosystem," said Lindsey Allen, executive director of Rainforest Action Network. "With palm oil in roughly half of all packaged goods at the grocery store, it's up to all of us to demand major global brands like PepsiCo finally do the right thing and break the link between their products and tropical forest destruction."

DiCaprio met with Allen during the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) to discuss the urgent situation facing the Leuser Ecosystem and the critical connection between deforestation and global carbon emissions.

Following his conversation with Allen, DiCaprio's trip to the Leuser Ecosystem caused an international uproar when the Indonesian government briefly threatened him with deportation following his social media posts that drew attention to the deforestation and destruction caused by palm oil expansion. The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation later committed three years of major funding for local and international efforts to save the Leuser Ecosystem.

Watch the trailer for Before the Flood here:

By Chelsea Matthews

As Conflict Palm Oil companies move into priceless rainforests like Sumatra's Leuser Ecosystem, they are leaving a trail of destruction behind. Chocolate the orangutan is one of the few lucky survivors of this destruction and his is a story of hope.

Racing Extinction, Rainforest Action Network and Wildlife Asia have put together a short video about Chocolate to expose the impact of Conflict Palm Oil.

Chocolate, a Sumatran orangutan, was orphaned at a young age. He was violently ripped away from his mother to be sold into the pet trade after his rainforest home in the Leuser Ecosystem was destroyed to make way for massive industrial palm oil plantations. As the Leuser Ecosystem continues to be destroyed for palm oil, more forests are being fragmented, giving poachers easy access to Sumatran orangutans like Chocolate and other species hunted for trade on the black market.

Chocolate shown as an infant orphan orangutan while being held illegally by wildlife traders in a small village on the outskirts of the Tripa peat swamp in Indonesia's Leuser Ecosystem. Paul Hilton / SOCP

The rainforests of the Leuser Ecosystem are the last place on Earth that can support viable populations of Sumatran orangutans and other critically endangered species. Protecting this extraordinary place is essential if the Sumatran orangutan, tiger, rhino and elephant are going to continue to survive in the wild.

Driving this crisis is Conflict Palm Oil: the world's cheapest vegetable oil which is found in roughly 50 percent of packaged goods, including foods made by snack food giant PepsiCo. The skyrocketing demand for cheap Conflict Palm Oil has driven industrial-scale palm oil plantations deep into the rainforests of Indonesia, including the critically important Leuser Ecosystem.

Chocolate, a critically endangered Sumatran orangutan, is released into the wild after four years in rehabilitation.Paul Hilton / Wildlife Asia

PepsiCo is the largest globally distributed snack food company in the world and uses an immense amount of palm oil: Its annual consumption could fill enough Pepsi soda cans full of palm oil to circle the earth at the equator four times.

Right now, PepsiCo and other mainstream companies are failing to use palm oil in their products that is truly conflict-free. As palm oil is such a pervasive ingredient, boycotting products that contain it would be nearly impossible. This is why there is a growing movement calling for truly responsible palm oil—a benchmark that ensures no deforestation, no species extinction and no human rights abuses for the production of palm oil.

This approach is already proving successful as each year more and more of the companies that buy, sell and use palm oil in their products have adopted responsible palm oil commitments. But PepsiCo has fallen behind its peers by failing to raise its standards to the new global benchmark for responsible palm oil use. PepsiCo must clean up its palm oil supply chain to ensure it is not driving iconic species like the Sumatran orangutan to extinction.

Join the movement. Demand PepsiCo adopt a truly responsible palm oil policy and break its link to the destruction of critical forests like the Leuser Ecosystem.

Although we continue to see destruction for palm oil, there is hope. Every day more people are standing up, fighting back and holding the line against further destruction. Together, we can win for Chocolate, for the Leuser Ecosystem and for all the people and animals who reply on it.

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