Unilever accused of destroying Borneo rainforests

AP Photo/Sang Tan
Protesters from Greenpeace, dressed as orangutans, demonstrate outside Unilever office in London Monday, April 21, 2008.

Greenpeace is accusing Unilever, the makers of Dove soap, of driving deforestation in Borneo by buying palm oil from companies that are clearing the country's rainforests, threatening native people and wildlife.

Last week, protesters from the environmental group donned orangutan costumes and staged protests outside Unilever's offices in London, Rome, and Rotterdam and at a factory in Port Sunlight, England. On their website Greenpeace has launched a video accusing Unilever of contributing to deforestation.

The video mirrors the Dove Self-Esteem Fund's "Onslaught" video, which depicts a young, blond-haired girl amidst a barrage of beauty advertisements. Except this time it's a peeved-looking Indonesian girl battered by scenes of felled trees, brush fires, and dead orangutans.

Palm oil is a common ingredient in many processed foods, as well as in soaps and other personal care products. It is also used in the production of biofuels. Greenpeace says that Unilever purchases 1.3 tons of palm oil each year, making it the world's biggest user of the stuff.

Greenpeace's campaign coincides with a report, titled "Burning Up Borneo," that details the environmental damage caused by deforestation, which is destroying the orangutan's habitat and accelerating climate change. Unilever, they say, is the primary culprit:

Unilever has failed to use its power to lead the palm oil sector toward sustainability, either through its own palm oil purchasing – its primary suppliers in Indonesia represent over a third of the country’s palm oil production – or through its role as leader of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), whose members represent 40% of global palm oil production....
Greenpeace investigations provide new evidence that it is Unilever’s own palm oil traders and producers (themselves RSPO members) who are leading ‘aggressive expansion’ of the sector that results in the devastation of the last remaining orang-utan rainforest and peatland habitat in Borneo.
By failing to apply and enforce RSPO principles and criteria to both traders and producers at group level, Unilever has failed to bring the rapidly expanding palm oil sector under control. The growth of global brands and brand platforms such as Doveand Dirt is Goodis creating incentives for Unilever’s suppliers to expand, ‘leading to the devastation of the last remaining rain forests in Borneo’. As it stands, Unilever suppliers are driving species extinction, climate change through the significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions linked to deforestation and peatland destruction, and land conflict with forest-dependent communities.

Greenpeace is not, calling for a boycott. Rather, they are demanding a moratorium on expansion of oil palm plantations.

For its part, Unilever says that has "great sympathy" with Greenpeace and share's its concerns about deforestation. In a video press release, Unilever spokesman Gavin Neath says that there is currently no sustainable oil palm plantations, and that Unilever has to "create this supply." In doing so, Mr. Neath says, they want to get it right:

[A]s far back as the mid 90s, we made a very public commitment about sourcing all of our fish from sustainable sources and, last year, we made a similar commitment on tea. But, on each occasion, we only made those commitments when we had done sufficient work to really make sure that we could follow through with integrity, with a sporting chance of meeting the goals that we'd set for ourselves.
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