The Palm Oil Industry Is Choking Southeast Asia

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The Palm Oil Industry Is Choking Southeast Asia

For the past week, Singapore and Malaysia have been plagued with the annual phenomenon locals call “the haze” — a cloud of smoke so thick it blocks out buildings and causes sore throats, watery eyes, and even asthma attacks. The cause of this recurring summer problem? Palm oil farmers in neighboring Indonesia illegally clearing land by burning down rainforest to make room for their crops.

As an American expat in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, I’ve had the exciting experience of my first “haze season” this past week. I watched as the skies became a little gray and then slowly filled with so much smoke I could no longer see buildings 2 kilometers down the street. The pharmacies and convenience stores I visited quickly ran out of the recommended N95 respirators for those planning to go outside — most weren’t even stocked with the much less effective surgical masks that are popular in Asia for allergies and colds.

On the worst days, even the inside of my air-conditioned apartment smelled a little like burnt wood. I accepted a runny nose and watery eyes as inevitable. All this at pollution levels deemed “unhealthy” but not a serious risk for the general population. A few friends with mild asthma have had it much, much worse. (That picture up there? That’s the actual view from my building in the middle of the afternoon, with no filter.) Local schools have even had to be shut down because of the unhealthy outdoor air.

Naturally, Malaysians and Singaporeans have been upset about being confined indoors and the risk to their health. In some areas the haze has spiked to levels of over 700 on the Air Pollutant Index — more than twice the “hazardous” level of 300, which is deemed life-threatening to the elderly and people with existing health problems. But when local officials have demanded action from Indonesia to punish those responsible, the reaction has been, well…less than promising. First, an Indonesian official accused Singapore of “acting like a child.” Then the government changed tactics, accusing companies in Singapore and Malaysia of hiring local farmers to start fires on their palm oil plantations.

Whether or not these companies are to blame, that doesn’t absolve Indonesia of responsibility. It needs to enforce its own laws against slash-and-burn agriculture regardless of who owns the land — but this has been a recurring problem since the 1980s because perpetrators are simply not punished. At some point soon, the air will clear…but that doesn’t mean that we should forget about the haze and do nothing to keep it from happening again next summer.

It’s not just human health that’s being affected by this practice, either. Deforestation in Indonesia is contributing to climate change and driving species like the orangutan to the brink of extinction. The only way to end this practice once and for all is for people worldwide to boycott products that use palm oil as an ingredient. Even products which claim to use “green” or “sustainable” palm oil can’t necessarily be trusted and should be avoided.

Since palm oil is snuck into many household goods and often disguised on food ingredient labels, it can be a little tricky to avoid. Say No To Palm Oil has a few suggestions to help you identify palm oil in products. They also have a list of brands who often use palm oil to watch out for. If you a brand you use includes palm oil in their products, write to them and let them know why you won’t be buying their products any longer. Maybe with enough consumer pressure on the palm oil industry, this ecologically devastating practice can finally end.


Julie is an American writer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She writes about green living, education politics, and the environment.

  • Debbie Hogan Tate

    Shame on this country for letting the forests be burned for a crop that will go by the wayside because of its environmental impact! Shame on Southeast Asia and the occupants who are doing this to the forests! They are what produces the oxygen we breathe. Palms produce hardly any oxygen compared to the forest trees! Shame on you, Southeast Asia. Will buy nothing made of palm oil and will advise my friends of this also who will in turn spread the word and the boycott about this nasty crop will begin!

    • Melania

      Absolutely agree with you Debbie! Consumers need to be educated also, I am sure millions don´t even know what palm oil is or what it´s doing to the planet. Is it hard to read the labels at the grocery store?

  • Llorenc

    Thanks for the account Julie; I was visiting Singapore and Malaysia in the last two weeks and lived it first hand too. What brought me there? Working on improving palm oil’s sustainability! The thing I can’t agree with you in your article is the boycott on palm oil: palm oil is the main source of vegetable oil in the world, and the highest yielding one. With a growing population, if you stop palm oil production you’ll simply shift the problem to other oils that will have to expand instead (and because all other oils yield less per hectare the pressure on forests will be even greater!). So the only option is to break the link between palm oil and deforestation, just as RSPO is trying to do (see campaign “Support Certified Sustainable Palm Oil Instead”: http://www.rspo.org/en/support_cspo_instead). Do we have to be complacent? No! Let’s keep inspiring consumers to request RSPO certification from their favourite brands, and keep pushing for even stricter standards and more enforcing of the sustainable principles and criteria.

    • CH

      There’s question marks surrounding RSPO. “certification” another word that baffles consumers. Who gives us the “certification” to remove rainforest?

  • CH

    Couldn’t agree more!! There is sustainable palm, but not sustainable rainforest. Consumers need to be aware of the difference. This is now moving into Cameroon. Profit profit profit. This word “sustainable” is thrown around freely.