Palm oil is unavoidable. Can it be sustainable?

Our appetite for the oil hurts the environment and wildlife. But Gabon hopes to show how to build an industry while protecting its forests.

Photograph by PASCAL MAITRE

This story appears in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

In southwestern Gabon, the old-growth forest stretches hundreds of miles. One January morning I disembark from a narrow boat on the shore of the Ngounié River with a few employees of Olam, a Singapore-based agribusiness company. Following elephant tracks, we plunge into the forest. We pass towering, ancient trees, chimpanzee nests, piles of day-old gorilla dung. Monkeys scamper overhead. A young Olam ranger yanks off his boots and climbs barefoot up a trunk, returning with handfuls of pink, plumlike fruits.

Wandering farther we find wild mangoes, kola nuts, bark that smells of garlic. At a sun-dappled clearing, fish splash in a watering hole. The trees around it have been scratched by elephant tusks.

To stand here in the slanting sunlight and imagine all this being razed is heart-stopping.

The place is not a park or a preserve but part of the Mouila oil palm plantation, operated by Olam. If it were in Indonesia or Malaysia—the world’s two largest suppliers of palm oil—loggers and bulldozers might be closing in to clear the jungle for uniform rows of oil palm trees.

Oil palms, with giant bunches of red fruit growing beneath unruly fronds, are an ancient staple crop. For millennia humans have boiled and pounded their fruit to extract cooking oil, burned their seed-kernel shells for heat, and woven their leaves into everything from roofs to baskets. Over the past few decades, however, palm oil use has exploded—in part because of the versatility and creamy texture of the oil (think Oreo filling) and in part because of the productivity of the trees. They require only half as much land as other crops, such as soybeans, to generate a given amount of oil.

Palm oil is now the world’s most popular vegetable oil, accounting for one-third of global consumption. It’s a common cooking oil in India and some other countries. As an ingredient, it has become difficult to avoid almost everywhere. It’s in all manner of supermarket items: cookies, pizza dough, bread, lipstick, lotion, soap. It’s even in supposedly eco-friendly biodiesel: In 2017, 51 percent of the European Union’s palm oil consumption was to power cars and trucks.

Worldwide, demand for palm oil continues to rise. India uses the most, 17 percent of the global total, followed by Indonesia, the EU, and China. The United States currently ranks eighth. In 2018 global consumption is expected to reach 72 million tons, or roughly 20 pounds of palm oil per person.

Supplying that demand has taken a huge toll. Since 1973, nearly 16,000 square miles of rain forest on Borneo, the island shared by Malaysia and Indonesia, have been logged, burned, and bulldozed to make way for oil palm. It accounts for a fifth of the total deforestation on Borneo since 1973—and for 47 percent since 2000.

All that deforestation has been devastating for wildlife. Nearly 150,000 critically endangered Bornean orangutans perished from 1999 to 2015, and although the main culprits were logging and hunting, palm oil was a major factor. It also exacerbates climate change—nearly half of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and other land-use changes—as well as acute air pollution. The haze from Indonesian forest fires, many deliberately set to clear land for oil palms, caused at least 12,000 premature deaths in 2015 alone.

People in the path of plantations have suffered in other ways. Human rights abuses such as child labor and forced evictions have been well documented. On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, palm oil companies have sometimes bulldozed entire indigenous villages, leaving their residents homeless and reliant on government handouts.

That kind of shortsighted ecological rampaging is precisely what Gabon is trying to avoid. The Eden I visited will not be razed: Olam has protected it as part of an agreement with the government that allows the company to grow oil palms elsewhere on its concession.

“What we’re trying to do in Gabon is find a new development path where we don’t cut all our forest down but keep a balance between oil palm, agriculture, and forest preservation,” says Lee White, the conservation biologist who runs Gabon’s parks agency. As the nation of fewer than two million people embarks on industrial-scale agriculture, the government is using scientific assessments to decide which parts of its expansive forests have high conservation value and which can be opened to oil palms.

In Africa as in Southeast Asia, the crop is here to stay. Producing countries depend on the income. Boycotting palm oil is unwise: Alternative oil crops would swallow even more land. It’s also futile, because palm oil is so pervasive and so often processed into ingredients, such as sodium lauryl sulfate and stearic acid, whose origins are opaque to consumers. We’re not likely to cut palm oil consumption radically. The only way forward is to make its production less bad.

Indonesia and Malaysia are now the epicenter of palm oil, but the oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis, is not native to Asia. It comes from West and central Africa, where archaeologists have found 3,000-year-old palm nuts buried in streambeds deep in the forest. Throughout the 1800s, British traders imported African palm oil, using it for a growing number of products, from soap to margarine to candles. Once scientists discovered how to isolate glycerin from the oil, its applications multiplied: pharmaceuticals, photographic film, perfume, even dynamite.

By the turn of the 20th century, oil palms had been shipped to Indonesia, and commercial plantations had taken hold. In the late 1930s they covered just 250,000 acres. Over the next half century or so, agricultural breakthroughs—breeding trees resistant to a common pathogen, introducing an African weevil for pollination—led to greater yields and a flourishing investment in oil palms.

Still, as recently as the 1970s, three-quarters of Borneo was covered in lush rain forests. But as global demand for palm oil grew, companies racing to supply it burned and bulldozed some of those forests. Health concerns over trans fats fueled the boom—palm oil replaced trans fats in many products—as did rising demand for biodiesel. By the early 2000s, the boom was in full swing, and thousands of square miles of lowland forests and peatlands across Borneo were planted with oil palms.

By then, pressure from international conservation groups over deforestation was growing, and WWF teamed with some of the biggest palm oil producers and buyers to begin creating standards for producing palm oil more responsibly. Plantations certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) can’t clear “primary forests or areas which contain significant concentrations of biodiversity (e.g. endangered species) or fragile ecosystems.” They must minimize erosion and protect water sources. They must pay a minimum wage and get “free, prior, and informed consent” from local communities.

Today the RSPO certifies roughly one-fifth of the global supply. Many consumer goods manufacturers that rely on palm oil—Unilever, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble—have pledged to switch their supply chains exclusively to certified palm oil over the next few years. That’s a big step forward. But it’s not enough.

What’s essential and still mostly lacking is government intervention in producing countries. “We in the conservation community were vastly overoptimistic in thinking that market-based solutions alone could solve this,” says John Buchanan, who runs the sustainable food and agriculture markets program at Conservation International. “If the government isn’t on board or doesn’t have the capacity or doesn’t know what it’s doing,” he says, the rain forest still takes a hit.

On a sticky afternoon near the northeastern tip of Borneo, small groups of elephants graze by a murky river. As the sun drops toward the treetops, the groups converge at a muddy riverbank. Soon more than 50 elephants are swimming in an orderly line across the wide, fast-moving Kinabatangan River, bobbing their giant heads and spraying water out their trunks.
The Kinabatangan is among the easiest places to see wildlife in Sabah, the Malaysian state that occupies northern Borneo. From boats on the river, tourists can view rare and iconic species—Borneo pygmy elephantsproboscis monkeys, rhinoceros hornbills, even orangutans—without getting their boots dirty.

It’s a thrill to watch these animals in the open. But the reason they’re so visible is that they have nowhere else to go. For endless, sprawling miles around the river, the forest has been obliterated and replaced by oil palms. You can drive for hours, passing a parade of tanker trucks carrying palm oil, and barely see another species of tree.

In Sabah in the 1970s, the government turned to agriculture to address its decades-long overdependence on timber. It earmarked large swaths of fertile flatland in lowland forests, including the Kinabatangan region, for growing crops. “The assumption was that all the best soil should be allocated for agriculture,” says John Payne, a conservation biologist who has lived in Sabah since 1979.

Through the 1980s, Sabah’s agricultural land was largely devoted to cocoa. But when falling world prices and a pest called the cocoa-pod borer made the crop less profitable, most plantations switched to oil palms. Land was cheap, so companies from the Malaysian mainland began snapping it up, building mills and other infrastructure. That made it easier for growers to get their fruit to market—and large-scale forest clearing began in earnest. Today one-fifth of the state is covered in oil palms. Sabah produces more than 7 percent of the world’s palm oil.

The ecological cost has been astonishing. Many remaining forest fragments are disconnected from one another—islands of jungle that look intact but are largely empty of animal life. “What used to house the highest density of orangutans is now oil palm,” Payne says.

Amid all the loss, it can be hard to find hope. But in Sabah, a group of scientists, activists, RSPO members, and government officials is trying to right past wrongs. Payne now runs the Palm Oil & NGO (PONGO) Alliance, an industry-NGO coalition that aims to convert 5 percent of the biggest plantations on Borneo back to forest for orangutans. (Pongo is the ape’s genus name.) Hutan, the conservation organization that took me up the Kinabatangan, has over the past decade planted more than 100,000 trees of 38 species, trying to preserve a corridor for wildlife along the river.

A gregarious man with a devilish streak—he once joked at a press conference that rhinos were going extinct because “they’re stupid”—Mannan believed in collaborating with palm oil producers. “Without oil palm, conservation in Sabah would be in trouble,” Mannan told me in his office in the seaside city of Sandakan, once the island’s timber capital. Only petroleum contributes more revenue to Sabah’s government than the oil palm industry. “The money is going back to conservation,” Mannan said.

You could argue, I pointed out, that without oil palms you wouldn’t need as much money for conservation.

“You could argue that way,” Mannan said, “but you would be poor.”

The palm oil boom has helped bring clear economic benefits to Sabah: paved roads, better schools, satellite television. In Kota Kinabalu, the state’s capital, gleaming new shopping malls feature Western and Asian luxury brands.

This past August, Mannan was terminated by Sabah’s new government, which had launched an investigation into possibly illegal logging deals made by the previous administration. Mannan had managed to annoy those on both sides of the palm oil debate in Malaysia during his nearly two-decade tenure. But many environmentalists had considered him a restraint on the industry—a “visionary, bold, and effective” government leader, Payne says.

Ultimately, says RSPO CEO Darrel Webber, a Sabah native, the culture of the palm oil industry must change. With Mannan’s backing, Webber and a Malaysian activist, Cynthia Ong, launched an ambitious effort to do that in Sabah. Their goal is to teach everyone from smallholders with just a few acres to high-flying CEOs how and why to do palm oil better—and then to certify the state’s entire supply as sustainable.

“As demand increases and Sabah wants to supply that, we have to put some lines in the sand,” Ong says.

The state hopes to be certified as a whole by 2025, though exactly how is still a question. “We’re building the plane while flying it,” Ong says. Wild Asia, a Malaysian nonprofit, is organizing hundreds of smallholders in the Kinabatangan and other regions into groups that can be certified together and sell palm fruit to a certified mill. Nestlé, a large palm oil consumer that doesn’t own plantations itself, is helping to fund the project. Farmers get a better price; RSPO members such as Nestlé get a way to trace their oil. “We want to link this to the supply chain,” says Kertijah Abdul Kadir of Nestlé.

Since 2011 she also has overseen the planting of some 700,000 trees along the Kinabatangan River, covering more than 6,000 acres. Elsewhere in Sabah, Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil supplier and another RSPO member, is replanting forests to protect watersheds and create wildlife corridors. Reforestation is labor-intensive, expensive, and slow—several lifetimes of waiting won’t produce anything resembling an old-growth rain forest. But it’s a start.

Critics of the RSPO complain that working with companies that caused the loss of forests renders the effort suspect. They say one of the main requirements for certification—no new deforestation—sets the bar far too low.

The RSPO’s Webber, who once worked for WWF, responds by comparing the palm oil industry to St. Paul on the road to Damascus. “Do you forgive a huge sinner because that person could be your greatest missionary?” Webber asks. “Or do we keep all the sinners out, and then what change would we have? We have to find a way to bring on board the whole group.”
During the past decade, Webber says, a growing number of palm oil companies have accepted the need for change. “We’ve got quite a few in acceptance but also quite a few in denial. Our job is to push this long tail of producers into acceptance. It will take a while.”

In Gabon, one of Africa’s most forested countries, palm oil is coming home, and a boom may be on the horizon. Situated on the Equator and on the continent’s west coast, Gabon is roughly the size of Colorado with a third of the people. More than 76 percent of the country is covered in forest, with 11 percent of its land area protected in national parks. It’s a wildlife wonderland.

“It’s exactly the kind of large, intact forest you want to protect from any kind of development,” says Glenn Hurowitz, CEO of Mighty Earth, a Washington D.C.-based environmental organization that has criticized Olam’s palm oil operations in Gabon. “There’s so much degraded land [across the tropics]. Why would you send your palm oil plantations to countries that have so much existing forest?”

One answer is that Gabon wants them. The former French colony has the fourth highest GDP per capita in sub-Saharan Africa, but much of the revenue comes from petroleum. It needs to diversify. Hurowitz argues that Gabon should be developing ecotourism instead. A relatively safe country with spectacular parks and wildlife, it has few airstrips, barely passable roads, and scant lodging. There’s a huge opportunity for more tourism—one that Gabon’s parks agency, the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN), is pursuing.

Tourism is only part of what the country needs. Gabon imports much of its food: Wheat and milk come from France; beef is flown in from India and Brazil. The government of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who won a controversial election in 2016 to a second seven-year term, wants to add commercial agriculture—including palm oil—to Gabon’s economy. That requires cutting down trees.

Recognizing the conflicting demands on its land, the government has embarked on a project few other nations have tried: a national land-use plan.

Lee White, ANPN director and one of the president’s closest advisers—British born, he has lived in Gabon since 1989 and has dual citizenship—oversaw the process of mapping the country’s land and wildlife and determining which areas should be developed for agriculture. The government granted two new oil palm concessions to Olam and later sold the company an existing plantation. Olam now operates on 500 square miles, or 0.5 percent of Gabon’s land area. Some 215 square miles are planted in oil palms.

On a bright January morning, Christopher Stewart, Olam’s chief sustainability manager, maneuvers a Mitsubishi SUV along the potholed highway southeast from Libreville, the capital. Trucks whiz past carrying giant okoume logs—Gabon’s chief timber export, bound in large part for China and Europe. Beyond Libreville’s sprawl, tiny villages dot the countryside. Nearly every cluster of houses has a roadside stand, consisting typically of an overturned rusty metal drum and a wooden rack. The drums are covered with bananas or plantains, bowls of brightly colored jungle fruits, plastic water bottles filled with bathtub palm wine. Hanging from the racks, all along the highway, are furry and spiny carcasses: porcupines, blue duikers, the occasional monkey, a civet, a crocodile, the haunches of a gazelle.

Much of that bush meat is illegal—and also perhaps understandable, in a country without much domestic meat production. Illegal bush meat is offered at many restaurants in Libreville. Poaching is a big issue for Olam; locals and workers use the plantations as access points to the forest, where they have been known to hunt at-risk species. So Olam rangers patrol the protected forests. At the plantation gates, guards search exiting cars.

Two and a half hours from Libreville, we pull onto a red dirt road toward the Awala plantation. This area is secondary forest, one of the places where logging first began in Gabon. The government gave Olam roughly 50,000 acres here—of which the company has planted oil palms on about a third. Another third is conserved as one block of forest, and the rest remains standing in smaller parcels, some of it on steep hillsides.

Inside the plantation, it’s easy to lose your sense of direction amid row upon row of palm trees, punctuated by indistinguishable dirt roads. At the end of each row, workers have piled fresh palm-fruit bunches and loose fruit. In the afternoon other workers will toss the fruit into dump trucks, which will deliver it to an on-site mill that processes 50 tons of oil an hour.

At Olam’s Mouila plantation, farther south, an even bigger mill is producing twice as much oil. More than half the planted area at Mouila was open savanna. Research here has revealed the presence of a rare antelope, the southern reedbuck. Photographed by a camera trap in 2017, the animal is helping White justify a new national park in the savanna.

Stewart, who has a Ph.D. in ecology, helped set up the RSPO program in Southeast Asia before joining Olam. On our boat trip back from the old-growth forest at Mouila, we talk about the devastation in Indonesia. He visited areas with biologists who had worked only a few years earlier in intact rain forest—and were returning to find it all destroyed. Stewart chokes up as he recalls this. He’s immensely proud of Olam’s conservation efforts in Gabon.

Atop a small hill within the plantation, we climb to the roof of Stewart’s truck. For 180 degrees, the rows of oil palms stretch nearly to the horizon. In the scorching sun, the monochrome view is dizzying. The map Stewart holds is even more sobering. This section of plantation covers nearly 40,000 acres; what we’re seeing is less than 7 percent of that.

As an ecologist, Stewart hates the idea of trees being cut. But, he says, “I know that this is actually in Gabon’s long-term interest for these projects to be in the right place and managed well and to show what well-planned, well-managed agriculture can do.” White agrees. Olam isn’t undermining protected areas, he says: “Olam is helping me create more national parks.

”Seven hours from Libreville, at the end of three hours of bone-jarring dirt roads, lies Lopé National Park—one of 13 national parks White helped create. He lived here for 15 years and still visits often to do wildlife research. One evening, sitting in the open-air living room of the research station, White sips whiskey as lightning makes purple streaks across the starry sky. In the forest around us, families of gorillas and mandrills are bedding down for the night. Leopards and caracals are waking up to hunt.

Once you start clearing forests for agriculture, it becomes easier to clear ever more. Does White worry about that? He smiles. “I’m not really a worrier,” he says, before reframing the risk: “If in 50 years’ time we can’t feed the number of human beings we have on the planet, then highly productive, humid, tropical places where you can grow vast amounts of food are going to come under threat.”

On hilltops near Lopé’s western boundary, French archaeologist Richard Oslisly has uncovered evidence of Stone Age and Iron Age communities—chips from the making of quartz arrowheads, iron tools and furnaces. Three thousand years ago, Bantu peoples began to migrate along the Atlantic coast to Gabon from Cameroon. They brought oil palms with them. Wading in a stream in Lopé’s forest, Oslisly scratches at the bank and pulls out domesticated palm nuts dating back two millennia.

By around 1,500 years ago, those early farmers had covered large parts of Gabon and northern Congo in palm groves. “Central Africa,” White says, “probably looked like Indonesia does today.” A drastic population crash—perhaps caused by an epidemic—wiped out those Iron Age people. The rain forest came roaring back.

“Now we are starting the cycle again,” White says. “Our management actions will tell whether once again we destroy the forests or if we can maintain an equilibrium.” For humans, balance is often an elusive goal.

By Hillary Rosner

This story appears in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.