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  PlanetSave website, 3 Jun 05
Consumer group charges palm oil plantations
threaten rain forests in Indonesia, Malaysia

Written by Michael Casey

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ Palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia are threatening rainforests and could contribute to the extinction of orangutans and tigers there, a U.S. consumer advocacy group charged Friday.

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, in a report on the industry also raised health concerns about using palm oil and called for manufacturers of biscuits and other snacks to use as little as possible and obtain it from environmentally sustainable sources.

``We applaud food manufacturers for moving away from trans-fat-laden partially hydrogenated oils, and happily, many companies are switching to such heart-healthy oils as soybean, corn, or canola,'' said CSPI's Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson.

Jacobson co-authored the report, ``Cruel Oil: How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest, & Wildlife,'' with ecologist Ellie Brown. ``Consumers and food processors should realize, though, that palm oil still promotes heart disease and that producing palm oil has a devastating impact on rainforest and endangered wildlife,'' Jacobson said in a statement.

Most palm oil is produced in Malaysia or Indonesia, according to the report, and production in Indonesia has grown more than 30-fold since the mid-1960s. In Malaysia, 11 percent of the total land area is devoted to palm oil, the report said. ``Companies sometimes profit from selling logs from the rainforest and then burn the area to make way for oil palms,'' the report said.

``The associated road-building, soil erosion, air and water pollution, and chemical contamination also have contributed to the loss of wildlife habitat and the displacement of indigenous peoples.''

Derom Bangun, chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association, acknowledged that the industry has doubled in size in the past decade, but he insisted it was environmentally responsible.

Since 2002, growers, producers, financiers and NGOs have signed a pact promising not to destroy habitat that is home to endangered species or crucial to a village's water supply, he said. The agreement also calls for each plantation to give back a portion of its earnings to nearby villages.

``We are of the opinion that palm oil is needed by the world to feed many hungry people,'' Bangun said. ``But at the same time, we don't want the production and use to be unsustainable. We are trying by all means to promote the sustainable palm oil.''

Malaysian Palm Oil Association Chief Executive Officer Azizi Meor Ngah also defended the sector. ``The (palm oil) estates are not concrete jungles. There are trees too,'' Azizi said, adding that very little forest has been cut down for new plantations in recent years. ``We are more or less saturated, in terms of opening up new areas,'' he said. ``If you want to look at the expansion of Malaysian plantations, for example last year, it was less than 1 percent.''

He said the industry was working with the government and the Malaysian chapter of the Worldwide Fund for Nature to legislate for the conservation of ``high value'' forests and prevent plantations from cutting off forest corridors that allow animals to roam from one patch of dense jungle to another.

Azizi also said the suggestion that soybean, corn and canola oils are healthier is misleading and that those promoting rival oils use ``underhand tactics to undermine palm oil.''

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