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Palm oil paradox

Meeting the demand for the ecofriendly fuel means burning rain forests. A new network offers a better way.

By Judith MatloffCorrespondent / August 24, 2009

An Indonesian farmer works a tract of land with some 15,000 seedlings for a pilot program in Aceh province aimed at mitigating the slash-and-burn approach to farming.

Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

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[Editor's note: This story prompted a letter from the Jardine Matheson Group, which owns extensive palm-oil plantations in Indonesia. Excerpts are printed below.]

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TRIPA SWAMP, INDONESIA – The surveyor mapping the rain forest below was so shocked that he couldn’t speak. From the air it looked as if someone had bombed with white phosphorus. Plumes of smoke rose from the earth where 150-foot hardwoods lay like toothpicks. Nearby, formations of oil palm plantations advanced, precise as an army.

The shocked surveyor paused to catch his breath. “In a few years there will be nothing left,” he said.

It’s one of the ironies of the sustainability movement. In their push for everything from biofuel to ecofriendly shampoo, humans are killing Earth’s great “lungs” and the habitat of endangered animals.

The reason is palm oil. Companies can’t get enough of the “golden plant” grown in Indonesia and Malaysia to keep up with demand. So plantations are burning and clearing rain forests – often illegally, especially in this peat swamp in Aceh Province – to plant more palm trees.

Clearing the jungle belches carbon into the air and is pushing orangutans to extinction. Conservationists warn that the orange creatures may vanish within a decade or two. Now, a Malaysian-based network of 278 banks, nongovernmental organizations, and companies is pushing to end the destruction by adopting more ecofriendly standards.

It represents a first step in a very long journey for the prized vegetable oil that appears all over supermarket shelves – in detergent, soap, cooking oil, bread, candy bars, cosmetics – and, increasingly, in biofuels.

The push to “green” palm oil “is a work in progress,” says Desi Kusumadewi, the Jakarta, Indonesia, representative of the network, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Since forming in 2004, the RSPO has signed up high-profile multinational corporations such as Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Nestlé, Colgate-Palmolive, Cargill, The Body Shop, and Cadbury. The maker of Girl Scout Cookies, ABC Bakers, has joined, too. The RSPO certified its first “green” batches a year ago, and now accounts for 1.4 million tons, or 3 percent of the world supply of crude palm oil.

Such fast work is winning kudos.

“The RSPO stands out as a voluntary initiative,” says Catherine Cassagne of the International Finance Corp., the private-sector arm of the World Bank that promotes sustainable projects in poor countries. “There’s nothing comparable.”

RSPO criteria has caught the eye of local producers, too. “Sustainability is the future,” says Muhammad Fuad, who manages the Aceh oil palm operation for Belgian-owned Socfindo Seumanyam.

The company grows the palm on existing plots so that it can leave forests alone. Avoiding consumers’ wrath is worth the extra investment of new equipment and training, he adds.