The Palm Oil Problem
The palm oil industry is one of the biggest local environmental threats around here.
Palm oil is found in over 50% of the products in a regular Supermarket and is here in the south of Thailand one of the two main agricultural sectors. It is also refined to produce fuel, which is the most wasteful way of using palm oil. The trees take valuable nutrients from the ground to make their fruit, which are cut, refined, shipped around the world (taken out of the cycle of the local ecosystem) and burned in combustion engines, creating greenhouse gases that further accelerate global warming. Precious soil nutrients are converted into poison and then stored in the atmosphere for a hundred years – most certainly the most unsustainable thing to do.
The oil palm is native to west and south-west Africa, but is cultivated mainly in south-east Asia, with the biggest producers being Indonesia and Malaysia (Thailand is number four). The palm oil industry is as corrupt and dangerous as it gets. They are responsible for the massive forest fires that haunt south-east Asia every dry season, as well as for other forms of deforestation and the threat it poses to already endangered species like the orangutan or the Sumatran Tiger, as well as various indigenous tribes (such as the most famous example, the Penan of Borneo).
In 2015, the haze of forest fires on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan darkened our sky for days at a time, making the heat unbearable, work exhausting, breathing harder and letting almost no sun rays through. The fires were caused by the illegal practice of “slash-and-burn”, where rainforest is recklessly cut down and burned. Big palm oil companies pay local people to burn vast areas of virgin forest, so that they can afterwards buy the newly available pieces of land, already, cleared, to plant more oil palms. This is a regular practice which just got intensified through the strongest ‘El Niño’ in recorded history. Indonesia is one of the worst places for this disastrous method of preparing the land for agricultural use, since the swampy grounds in the Indonesian rainforest store large quantities of CO2.
It is estimated that every palm tree consumes 200 liters of water per day, so it intensifies the effects of dry season, resulting in a lower groundwater level.
The oil palm needs to be fertilized every couple of months, which depletes the soil of any nutrients, makes it hard and sandy and dramatically accelerates, together with the use of herbicides or the regular cutting of ground vegetation, top soil degradation (which will make farming impossible in the near future) of valuable jungle soil.
The spiky fruit weights up to 60 kg and is sold at 3 to 7 Baht per kilo. The oil is extracted from the orange-red pulp of the fruit and the kernel. For every 100 kg of fruit bunches, 22 kg of palm oil and 1.6 kg of palm kernel oil is extracted (Overall, the yield is about 7,250 liters per hectare per year).
This is what we do with the remaining few palm trees that are still on our farm:
Further reading: One day, one man, one tree