Dr. Courtney Howard, MD

Where Does Palm Oil Come From Anyhow?

As Jenie described it and his cousin Andy later showed us, as you head to Camp Leakey, the park is on your right, and a series of research stations and villages are on your left. Branching off every so often on the left are irrigation channels about 2 metres wide. They supply water to palm oil plantations, which often sit just behind a screen of trees along the river. Between palm plantations and illegal logging, much of Indonesia’s original natural forest habitat has been lost—number vary—the sign at Camp Leakey’s info-centre puts it at 75%.

“Palm oil is a thirsty crop,” says Jenie. “Each tree needs 30-40 L every day.” This puts pressure on water resources, given that the river which supplies the irrigation channels runs alongside the park. A large dry-season wildfire within the park in 2015 destroyed many hectares of trees, and researchers working on reforestation worry that increased palm oil development may lead to decreasing water table levels and worsening future fires.

We had a “Summer of Smoke” of horrible wildfires in the Northwest Territories in 2014—I’m just finishing writing up as study into its health impacts. My ears perked up in nerdy interest at the details of their fire, but I sighed a bit to hear that they are a factor here as well.

It eventually became clear (halfway through a sentence that I was unfortunately speaking out loud) that I’d vaguely been picturing palm oil as the produce of an oily-sort-of-coconut. Our guide Andy explained, with a graciousness characteristic of the Indonesian people we’ve met, what palm oil actually is, and stopped the boat so we could take a look at a plantation. Like Jenie, he emphasized that so much of his community is now dependent on palm oil for work that to protect the forest, and therefore the orangutans and the climate–both education and alternative employment options are needed.

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