The Downside of Over-Developing Rainforests for Palm Oil

Cutting down rainforests for new Palm Oil plantations destroys the habitat of many plants and animals and lowers the diversity of species that only thrive in tropical environments. Sad as it may be, clear cutting perfectly good rainforest is the existing norm. It allows companies to get money not only for the rainforest woods but also for the oil products and bi-products from the resulting plantation. What does all this mean for our environment and us?


In 2006 palm oil plantations took up 6 million hectares (of 11 million globally) of Indonesia’s land. The Indonesian government is reclassifying rainforest as “degraded land” making it easier for companies to cut and convert the natural forest into palm oil plantations. It is projected that most of Indonesia’s rainforest will be destroyed by 2022.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Rainforests absorb atmospheric carbon and replace oxygen in our air while moderating temperature and humidity in our local and global climates. Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests lie atop peat bogs that store great quantities of carbon. Damage to peatlands, partly due to palm oil production, is claimed to contribute to environmental degradation, including four percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation, mainly in tropical areas, accounts for up to one-third of total anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Logging and palm oil plantation farming puts a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere, not to mention the amounts coming from the transport of palm oil around the world.

Habitat Destruction / Fragmentation
80 mammals can be found in healthy rainforests, 30 in disturbed forests, but only 11 or 12 in palm oil plantations. Cutting down the forest destroys habitat, which in the cases of Malaysia and Indonesia is causing the destruction of biodiversity hot spots. Destruction of their rainforests hinders migration patterns, increases the impact from logging, blocks travel corridors, encroaches on indigenous people’s lands, exposes at-risk animals for poaching, speeds up erosion and sedimentation and increases air, soil and water pollution (from burning to clear the lands and later from the chemicals used as herbicides, insecticides and pesticides).

Reduced Biodiversity
Decreased forest area means easier access for poachers to hunt diverse rainforest species. In addition to the loss of Orangutans, the Sumatran Tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros and Asian Elephant are all critically endandered species and are directly threatened by Palm Oil deforestation. Anytime a large mammal goes extinct, think about how many smaller species also go extinct, yet go unnoticed.

Palm Oil Spills
After plantation owners have raped the land of primary tropical forests and killed or forced out the animals and indigenous people that live there, the oil can be dumped (accidentally or by other means) into the ocean. Further, the “effluent” that is dispelled into the water systems causes death of the fish and water life that exists near the plantations.

Mismanaged agricultural and truly degraded land should be converted into palm oil plantations so we can leave the rainforests alone. Palm oil grows very well in grasslands or other poorly managed land that has already been depleted. There is no reason to use the best virgin rainforest land, when it will grow equally well in other (lesser quality) soil. 

Just because a company is affiliated with the RSPO does not hold them accountable to or mean they are following through on sustainable practices. As a consumer you can look out for the Green Palm Certificate or UTZ Certified logos to be more certain that RSPO standards are being met.