Can We Have Palm Oil Without Deforestation? Slash and burn for the world’s cheapest oil

Can We Have Palm Oil Without Deforestation?


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Palm oil might be here to stay, but deforestation doesn’t have to be, says Sarah Woodhead, co-founder of the Leuser Ecosystem Action Fund (LEAF). Here she shares her experiences of the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra.

With the deafening sound of the jungle heralding the dawn of a new day and a night of no sleep, I emerged from our make shift camp deep in the jungle, watched closely by a Thomas Leaf Monkey. Alongside gibbons and a couple of sizable monitor lizards, I jostled for my place to wash in the stream. I was finally in the glorious Leuser Ecosystem, 2.6 million hectares of tropical rainforest under severe threat from encroaching oil palm plantations. If you’re an Avatar fan, Leuser is Mother Nature’s version – a unique and iconic rainforest in Sumatra housing the last remaining orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos and a place I had dreamt of visiting.

Our guide, Darma, a forest ranger for over 20 years, knew the forest intimately. It was a privilege to experience the beauty of Leuser through his eyes. In Leuser, as in many landscapes, ecotourism provides not just an income but a motivation for the local community to protect the forest, whereas conversely, roads built by plantations have become tributaries for illegal poaching. There are an estimated 40-80 Sumatran rhino left – catastrophic for these species and our planet’s legacy.

Seeing my first orangutan in the wild was a humbling experience. They are big, incongruous and majestic. And under threat from humans. Darma knew many of the ones released from captivity that had been illegal pets but were now back into the rainforest’s utopia – a sophisticated and ancient ecosystem supporting these species and millions of others.

On the doorstep of this Eden, the threat of unlawful slash and burn to make way for the world’s cheapest oil is driving orangutans and all the forest’s inhabitants towards extinction. The true value of nature has not been recognised, and pristine, essential sites have been degraded to single use agriculture where animal species can’t survive.

The drive from Medan to Leuser had been sobering, through mile after mile of unappealing uniform rows of trees where lush, diverse forest once stood. Now nothing but barren land and make shift villages for the plantation workers lined the roads – senseless destruction for short term profit. Corruption, bribery and corporate bullying are rife in these naturally rich but economically poor countries, and have devastated the world’s last natural sanctuaries of biodiversity and abundance.

By handing forests over to big industry interests, the by-product is also flooding, landslides, fires and choking haze. This destruction affects the whole planet – 50% of the air we breathe comes from rainforests, and the CO2 thrown up from the burning peat fires causes more emissions than the US economy produces in a year.

We cannot allow this to continue for the sake of an oil used in fast food. Some communities are actively engaged in grass roots projects to protect the forest, such as tree planting, illegal logging patrols and conservation-friendly agriculture, but much more needs to be done to support them and pressure the government to protect what is left.

To do my bit and make sure this amazing place is protected forever, I set up the Leuser Ecosystem Action Fund (LEAF) alongside Ben Goldsmith, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and Sumatran Orangutan Society. LEAF is supporting proven and effective conservation approaches, whilst investing in innovative solutions to address entrenched conservation challenges. We’re thinking long-term, big-picture, striving to bring about fundamental changes to the way that the Leuser Ecosystem is valued, managed and protected. You can find out more by contacting me at

Palm Oil – a complex and divisive issue

Palm oil, the world’s cheapest oil, is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree traditional to West Africa. High in saturated fat and with no trans fat, it can be harvested all year round and is used prolifically in fast foods, detergents, cosmetics and many of our day to day products.

Palm oil’s return for big industry is very high because the rainforests in which oil palm trees grow have not been protected properly, making them cheap to acquire for oil palm plantations.

The palm oil issue is both complex and divisive. The oil is so ubiquitous in processed food and cosmetics, and the industry employs so many millions of people worldwide, that banning it is both unlikely and not necessarily helpful. But if palm oil is here to stay, deforestation doesn’t have to be.

Plantations should increase their output rather than their physical footprint in order to meet the ever-growing global demand, and we should all insist that the companies using palm oil in their products guarantee that it hasn’t come from plantations that have been involved in deforestation or community land rights violations such as those found in the Leuser Ecosystem.

If you want to visit Leuser yourself, it’s best to go through a reputable travel agency that cares about the health and longevity of the rainforest. RAW Wildlife Encounters comes recommended at

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