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Palm Oil Culture

Photographer: Fazry Ismail, Hotli Simanjuntak, Bagus Indahono, Wallace Woon, Dedi Sinuhaji, and Rony Muharrman


Palm oil is ubiquitous, you may not know you are eating it but it is used in products as diverse as ice cream, toothpaste, and detergent. In fact, an estimated 50 percent of packaged products sold in supermarkets these days contain some palm oil, according to the World Wildlife Fund, making it the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet.


But the demand for more and more land to plant palm oil trees made from the reddish pulp of the fruit, has seen the rapid and rampant destruction and conversion of tropical rainforest habitats into plantations, threatening important ecosystems, displacing and killing threatened and endangered and critically endangered species, among them orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos.


Orangutans, the large orange haired primates, live in the wild only in Malaysia and Indonesia, specifically on Borneo and in north Sumatra and Aceh. Classified as critically endangered, on the edge of extinction, their numbers have fallen so dramatically that wildlife organizations and conservationists say unless the destruction ends we will see the end of the species.


Southeast Asia is where more than 80 percent of the world's palm oil is grown and exported from, Indonesia and Malaysia leading the world in this production and export. The palms were introduced to Malaysia and Indonesia in the mid 20th-century from Africa, and a large scale production followed. The growth has been rapid and large in the years that followed, and the natural forest and all that lives in it faces a dire future.


Indonesia is the world's biggest producer of palm oil. Part of the clearing of forest for palm oil and wood is with widespread polluting fires. Plantations need for more space as demand for palm oil increases means that native forest has been cleared at an alarming rate and the smog from the fires have sparked international outcry about air quality health concerns from other southeast Asian nations such as Singapore and Thailand, blanketed with the wafting smoke of the massive fires.