“It is a globally significant disaster,” said Ian Redmond of Born Free Foundation as he opened the press conference. He smiled at each participant and continued, “If we’re in this room, we care enough to be in this room.” I looked around me to see a small pond of nodding listeners. Among them were members of Rainforest Action Network, representatives from Orangutan Information Center, and a the maker of an upcoming environmental film “Racing Extinction.” Green School’s Green Generation was also well represented with members of BioBus, Bye Bye Plastic Bags, and our Borneo/Sumatran fire awareness campaign, all in attendance.
The topic of the evening was palm oil. More specifically, the purpose of the conference was to create a platform for experts to speak on the palm oil industry through a variety of lenses such as humanitarian, environmental, and animal welfare. However, the event changed form when no reporters showed up. Ian Redmond asked, “Do we have anyone who will admit to being a journalist?” When he received an empty response, he continued, “It is up to us to make sure that what we say this evening ends up in their inbox with a big red exclamation mark.” This event had so little press because Barack Obama’s speech at the COP21 had been rescheduled for the same time on the same night. For this reason, what was meant to be an opportunity to raise awareness about the current state of Indonesia and Malaysia turned into an open dialogue about the palm oil industry, the RSPO, and how organizations and individuals are taking action to combat conflict palm oil.
The first speaker was a man named Panu from Sumatra. He is the founding director of Orangutan Information Center. Panu presented about the leuser eco system, the pivotal role it plays in the absorption of our CO2 emissions, and its general stupendous biodiversity. He set the stage for the rest of the speakers by describing the environment that was being abused in detail. “The leuser ecosystem is one of the most biodiverse existing in the world,” Panu began. “It covers an area of two million six hundred thousand hectares.” He went one to talk about how it is home to orangutans, elephants, and some of the last remaining Sumatran tigers and black rhinos. However, their habitat and wellbeing is being seriously threatened by poachers and loggers alike. “Rescued orangutans have a lot of bullets because people consider them pests.”
Next we heard from Lindsey Allen the executive director of Rainforest Action Network. She described their organization as “An environmental and human rights organization because [they]believe that these two things can’t be separated if we want lasting solutions.” Their mission is to target large producers of products containing palm oil by asking them two questions: 1) Do you know where your palm oil is coming from? 2) Do you care? Unfortunately, the answer to the first question is almost always no. However, responses to the second question are more varied. “Often [the response]is: ‘our customers don’t care,’ ‘no we don’t,’ ‘it’s not an issue,’ or ‘we’ve heard that it’s good cause it has some RSPO logo on it although we don’t really know what that means and we can’t actually tell you who is supplying our oil.” To combat this climate of ignorance and disinterest Rainforest Action Network responds, “You might not know where your oil is coming from but because of the work that we’re doing with partners and because of how we’re following the oil, we know that you’re implicated in this problem. So now that you’ve been implicated, you have the opportunity to do something different.” Lindsey also mentioned how important it is to take action in a way that has real impact. If you’re going to boycott palm, tell companies why you aren’t purchasing their product anymore.
We also got the unique opportunity to hear from a creative who worked on “Racing Extinction.” Heather Rally presented the trailer for the film that will be premiered on Discovery Channel on December 2nd. She spoke about the danger of investigating illegal animal trade and about the palm oil industry from a perspective of animal welfare. Watch the trailer for “Racing Extinction” below.
After individual presentations were finished, the presenters entertained many questions from GS Green Generation members and each other. In the end were left with one very important piece of palm oil knowledge from a Rainforest Action Network representative. “We made a very specific definition for what we meant when we say conflict palm oil and it’s conflict palm oil connected to deforestation, human rights abuses, carbon pollution. Then in contrast to it, because the words ‘sustainable palm oil’ become inextricably associated with the RSPO, and there are so many problems that we have with the RSPO, we realized we can’t use that term because it’s just too confusing. Sustainable palm oil means RSPO. So, we use the term responsible palm oil and we’ve created a very specific definition of what we mean as responsible palm oil. It means it has traceable supply lines, we can trace it back to the actual plantation where it was growing, and the producers are transparent with third party verification of the standards that it was grown in.”
Check your labels and ingredients for palm oil and only support products that use responsible sources!