Unilever: stop destroying mangroves for convenience food!

Malayan flying lemur on Borneo Malayan flying lemur on Borneo (© Istockphoto/Vincent_St_Thomas) Baby orangutan Baby orangutan (© Istockphoto/davidevison) Mangroves West Kalimantan (© PRCF Indonesia)

Unilever’s “sustainable palm oil” is an empty promise. Its palm oil supplier, Wilmar, is destroying one of the largest mangrove forests in Indonesia – and this is only one of many such cases. Tell Unilever to get palm oil out of its products and stop profiting from the destruction of nature.

Call to action

To: the senior management of Unilever

Unilever: eliminate palm oil from your products and get rainforest destruction out of your supply chain.

Read letter

Unilever’s brands “are used by 2.5 billion people every day”, as the consumer-goods giant proclaims on its website. The key raw material for products such as Dove, Flora and Ponds: palm oil. Rainforests are being destroyed and people driven from their land to produce this cheap tropical vegetable oil.

Unilever claims to use “sustainable” palm oil. Yet the grim reality is that Unilever’s supplier Wilmar buys palm oil that was produced on recently cleared rainforest land.

Our Indonesian partners have uncovered one of many instances of destruction and violence for palm oil currently aking place: Kubu Raya district is located on the west coast of Borneo, a remote dream landscape where mangrove forests line the rivers and coastline and proboscis monkeys come to greet the rare boats. Its mangrove and peat swamp forests are among the most extensive and biodiverse in Indonesia.

Yet the beauty of nature does not stop businessmen looking to make a quick profit, and oil palm plantations are pushing into Kubu Raya. PT Sintang Raya has a brutal business model – the palm oil company considers itself above the law, terrorizing local people and flattening mangrove forests for its plantations. PT Sintang Raya is one of the producers that supplies oil to Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader, which sells it to companies like Unilever.

The Leuser Ecosystem on Sumatra – the last place on the planet where elephants, rhinoceros, tigers and orangutans share a habitat – is also impacted: According to a Rainforest Action Network investigation, Wilmar is selling palm oil produced on freshly cleared rainforest land to various multinationals, including Unilever.

Back­ground

PT Sintang Raya: criminalization and environmental destruction

PT Sintang Raya operates a 20,000-hectare oil palm plant in Kubu Raya district. In 2007, the company began illegally clearing peat forests and grabbing the fields of smallholders from seven villages. Since 2009, Sintang Raya has inexplicably held a permit (HGU) to exploit 11,130 hectares, despite evidence that the required environmental and social impact analysis (AMDAL) had not been performed.

Sintang Raya is thus violating numerous laws and regulations, including:

- going forward with its plantation despite the apparent lack of an environmental impact analysis

- violating the ban on clearing peat forests and planting oil palms on peatland

- a lack of facilities for fighting forest fires, except for a single watchtower that is on the verge of collapse, despite numerous hotspots in the dry season during the summer months

- improper disposal of plantation wastewater and solid waste

In response, the local people took the plantation company to court. A key suit against the awarding of the operating permit was granted in 2011 and upheld by a higher court in 2012 and by the Supreme Court in 2014. The Sintang Raya plantation is thus officially illegal.

However, nothing changed on the ground – on the contrary, terror and intimidation has been mounting. The despair of the local people has led to resistance, such as harvesting actions. Sintang Raya then succeeded in criminalizing the locals. Seventeen villagers were sentenced to prison terms in 2014, others are being held pending trial. Faced with ongoing terror, the inhabitants of the seven villages sought refuge in the compound of the Commission on Human Rights in 2016.

The clearing of the Kubu Raya mangrove belt has had a dramatic impact on local water security. Salt water is no longer being buffered by the mangroves and is penetrating further inland. As a result, arable land is becoming increasingly saline. Not only have the villagers lost a major part of their traditional land to the palm oil company, the remaining land is hardly usable. Drinking water has become a major problem.

Kalimantan Legal Aid Association: Sintang Raya uses all legal resources (in Indonesian)

Letter

To: the senior management of Unilever

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Your company claims to purchase sustainable palm oil. Time and again, however, we have found that your suppliers illegally clear rainforest, grab land, terrorize villagers and break the national laws of their respective countries.

One of the plantations from which your supplier Wilmar’s palm oil originates is PT Sintang Raya, Kubu Raya district, West Kalimantan province, Indonesia. The company has grabbed land belonging to seven villages, intimidated the villagers and criminalized dozens of local people. It has cleared mangrove forests and planted oil palm trees on peat soil. The peat and mangrove forests in Kubu Raya district are the largest and most biodiverse in Southeast Asia.
Mangrove forests are crucial to protect the climate, biodiversity and coastlines. Cutting them down is not only against the law in Indonesia, but also a crime against humanity.

Furthermore, Sintang Raya is currently operating illegally after ignoring a ruling by an Indonesian court that revoked its operating permit.

Unfortunately, PT Sintang Raya is not the only company whose palm oil reaches Unilever via Wilmar. Other sources that sell their conflict palm oil to Wilmar include RSPO member PT Rezeki Kencana, operating in the same district, and PT Agra Bumi Niaga, which is clearing forest in the Leuser Ecosystem and destroying the habitat of endangered species.

Please eliminate palm oil from your products and terminate your business relationships to companies that pillage the environment.

Sincerely,

Topic

The issue – rainforest on our dinner tables and in our fuel tanks

At 66 million tons annually, palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil. Its low world market price and properties that lend themselves to processed foods have led the food industry to use it in half of all supermarket products. Palm oil can be found in frozen pizzas, biscuits and margarine, as well as body creams, soaps, makeup, candles and detergents.

Few people realize that almost half of the palm oil imported into the EU is used as biofuel. Since 2009, the mandatory blending of biofuels into motor vehicle fuels has been a major cause of deforestation.

Oil palm plantations currently cover more than 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface. Forests and human settlements have been destroyed and replaced by “green deserts” containing virtually no biodiversity on an area the size of New Zealand.

The impact – suffering and death in producer countries, climate havoc

The warm, humid climate of the tropics offers perfect growth conditions for oil palms. Day after day, huge tracts of rainforest in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa are being bulldozed or torched to make room for more plantations, releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. As a consequence, Indonesia – the world’s largest producer of palm oil – temporarily surpassed the United States in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. With their CO2 and methane emissions, palm oil-based biofuels actually have three times the climate impact of traditional fossil fuels.

Palm oil is not only bad for the climate: As their forest habitat is cleared, endangered species such as the orangutan, Borneo elephant and Sumatran tiger are being pushed closer to extinction. Smallholders and indigenous people who have inhabited and protected the forest for generations are often brutally driven from their land. In Indonesia, more than 700 land conflicts are related to the palm oil industry. Human rights violations are everyday occurrences, even on supposedly “sustainable” and “organic” plantations.

As consumers, we are largely unaware of these broader issues, yet our daily palm oil consumption also impacts our health: refined palm oil contains large amounts of harmful fatty acid esters that are known to damage DNA and cause cancer.

The solution – a revolution on our dinner tables and in our fuel tanks

Only 70,000 orangutans still roam the forests of Southeast Asia, yet the EU’s biofuels policy is pushing them to the brink of extinction. Every new plantation on Borneo is destroying a further piece of their habitat. Stepping up the pressure on policymakers is a must if we want to save our tree-dwelling kin. Apart from that, however, there is still a lot we can do in day-to-day life.

Follow these simple tips to recognize, avoid and combat palm oil:

  1. Enjoy a home-cooked meal: Use your imagination: why not try almond-coconut-pear biscuits? Or pizza with potato and rosemary? A meal cooked from fresh ingredients beats processed foods containing palm oil every time. Oils such as sunflower, olive, rapeseed or flaxseed are ideal for cooking and baking.
  2. Read labels: As of December 2014, labeling regulations in the EU require food products to clearly indicate that they contain palm oil. However, in the case of non-food items such as cosmetics and cleaning products, a wide range of chemical names may still be used to hide the use of palm oil. A quick check of your favorite search engine will turn up palm oil-free alternatives, however.
  3. Remember that the customer is king: Ask your retailers for palm oil-free products. Write product manufacturers and ask them why they aren’t using domestic oils. Companies can be quite sensitive to issues that give their products a bad name, so inquiring with sales staff and contacting manufacturers can make a real difference. Public pressure and increased awareness of the problem have already prompted some producers to stop using palm oil.
  4. Sign petitions and write your elected representatives: Online campaigns put pressure on policymakers responsible for biofuels and palm oil imports. Have you already signed all of Rainforest Rescue’s petitions?
  5. Speak out: Protest marches and creative action on the street raise public and media awareness of the issue, which in turn steps up the pressure on policymakers.
  6. Leave your car at home: Whenever you can, walk, ride a bicycle or use public transport.
  7. Be informed and inform others: Big Business and governments would like us to believe that biofuels are good for the climate and that oil palm plantations are sustainable. Spread the word – share this information with your family and friends and encourage them to rethink their consumption habits. It’s in our hands!
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