Peatland Fires and Palm Oil

Haze from peatland fires in Indonesia (September, 2015). Source: NASA Earth Observatory

Tropical peatland ecosystems contain very high levels of sequestered carbon and are experiencing rapid degradation. This happens because population pressure and increased resource consumption lead to land use conversion and draining with rice farming, oil palm and rubber production replacing tropical peatland ecosystems. Both the use of intentional fire, with slash and burn clearing, and outbreaks of wildfires due increased dryness, which worsens during El Niño years in Indonesia, destroys peatland ecosystems that releases massive amounts of stored carbon to the atmosphere. Which rapidly contributes to further global warming.

In 1997-98, during a strong El Niño, massive peatland fires across Indonesia resulted in major regional haze, millions suffering from respiratory problems, and resulting in billions in economic losses across Southeast Asia. Similarly, 2015/2016 El Niño season seems to have pushed already fragile peatland ecosystems in Indonesia over the limit with 118,273 active fires releasing 1636 metric tonnes CO2 equivalent to the atmosphere (as of 30 October, 2015). Peatland fires are not like ordinary fires due to the carbon rich soils they are very difficult to extinguish. Many times they don’t stop until heavy rains come along to help extinguish them.

Source: Global Fire Data

Much attention in mainstream media has been regarding Indonesia's poor land management policies during the last 30 years. However, in a resource scarce world with a growing population and increasing consumption of fat/oils everything from crackers to soap and biofuels this was bound to happen. There is no such thing as “sustainable palm oil” since it uses more resources (energy) than it can produce and at huge environmental costs (not accounted for!). It’s like trying to argue that “fracking” is sustainable, which of course is ludicrous. So anyone buying palm oil products is part of the problem, and claiming otherwise is hypocrisy.

Access roads and terraced fields destroy orangutan habitat in Borneo's lowlands.Photograph by Mattias Klum, National Geographic Creative

There are over 300,000 different animals found throughout the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra, many of which are injured or killed during deforestation. Palm oil development increases accessibility of animals to poachers and wildlife smugglers who capture and sell wildlife as pets, use them for medicinal purposes or kill them for their body parts. Government statistics has shown that over 50,000 orangutans have already died as a result of deforestation due to palm oil in the last two decades. Mother orangutans are also often killed by poachers and have their babies taken to be sold or kept as pets, or used for entertainment in wildlife tourism parks. Other species like the Sumatran Tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sun Bear, Pygmy Elephant, Clouded Leopard and Proboscis Monkey has also suffered greatly.

Gito was found lying in a urine-soaked box with severe hair loss and grey and flaking skin.
Credit: PA
The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report in April (2015) scoring America’s top brands usage of palm oil, including worst brands like: KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bel, Wendy’s, CVS/Pharmacy, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Target, Costco wholesale, DQ’s, Domino’s. I suggest people boycott these companies, and palm oil in general, there are other and much better vegetable oils that one can buy from more local sources.


Out of the ashes into the fire

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