The Un-Sustainability of palm oil

Palm oil trees replace old growth forests as far as the eye can see

Palm oil trees replace old growth forests as far as the eye can see

At the end of the conference on sustainable tourism, I flew to the first of three eco-resorts I’d be visiting while here in Costa Rica. While flying from San Jose (Costa Rica, that is) to the city of Quepos on a small plane via Sansa Air, I looked out the window. What I saw was troubling. 

After hearing a great deal at the conference about Costa Rica’s reforestation efforts, I thought at first the acres and acres of trees I was seeing were just that – tree reforestation areas. Everything was laid out neatly, symmetrically and close together. But it looked too perfect and my intuition said something wasn’t right here.

As we got closer to the airport and flew lower, I realized what I was seeing wasn’t climate-friendly reforestation. This was what I’d been reading about – palm tree plantations that had been put in after the clear cutting of old growth forests.

After arriving and getting settled at Arenas del Mar (an incredible eco-tourist resort in the midst of the rainforst, which I’ll be writing about soon), I had an enlightening conversation with Mr. Fabian Palma, Arrenas del Mar’s General Manager. When asked about the tree plantation, he gave me some sobering information.

Palm treesFirst, he reminded me that these trees were grown in order to harvest them for palm oil – this instead of the old growth trees that for centuries had nourished the land and captured huge amounts of CO2. I was then told that these hectares of trees had to be cut down and replaced every 20 years, at their end-of-life!

So not only is their product unsustainable, so are the trees and the way they’re processed!

It was a stunning sight to see. What a devastatingly negative impact this industry has on the environment – in Costa Rica and, by extension, the rest of the world.

There’s an immense amount of greenwashing going on about palm oil. And no wonder, since so many majar brands like Dove and Unilever use it in a wide variety of consumer products. Claims of sustainability are no where near accurate. Rainforests are systematically cut down and burned to make way for these non-sustainable alternatives. And worse, the public until recently hasn’t even been aware of their own complicity in encouraging this.

But now I’ve seen it and it’s not a pretty sight. Palm trees that must regularly be replaced – that’s hundreds of thousands of trees! – are working against the environment in a big way. It’s time to make some new choices and demands when it comes to what we accept in our favorite products.

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