We get asked this question all the time. The situation seems hopeless at times. Deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, threats of species extinction, disregard of indigenous land rights, exploitation of labor. The list of problems caused by oil palm cultivation goes on and on. How can one person possibly impact situations occurring halfway around the world and do we even have the right to do so?
The Volunteer Coordinator at the Sumatra Rainforest Eco Retreat is a young man by the name of Santa (pronounced sônta). The retreat is in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia which is on the Island of Sumatra and just north of the Gunung Leuser national park. The Leuser ecosystem is known to be the only place where Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans all live together. However, current population estimates for the Sumatran Rhino are less than 100 individuals and the number of Sumatran tigers is estimated to be 400-500 animals. One of the guides who took me into the rainforest told me he was hired for a 7-day trek into Leuser in search of the elusive Sumatran tiger, but they never saw any.
According to the USDA World Market Trade Report, the global use of vegetable oils has steadily increased, about 5% per year, over the last 20 years. Growing populations, increased wealth in the BRIC countries, and the resulting increased meat consumption (which requires more animal feed that comes from oilseed), have all maintained the steady growth of vegetable oils. Biofuels are also driving vegetable oil production. Biofuel production has dramatically risen over the last 15 years, going from 5 billion gallons in 2001 to almost 35 billion gallons in 2016 (Beckman, J. et al 2017). Recent biofuel increases are a response to the well-publicized connection between fossil fuel combustion and global warming. All these markets contribute to the overall positive impression that we have for natural materials. They are symbols of wealth, health, and global awareness.
Forced labor, as defined by the International Labor Organization, refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt (aka, “debt bondage”), retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.