The environmental problems of using palm oil for biodiesel fuel and other products has been recognised for more than a few years. Less attention has been given to the widespread use of palm oil in food products. Widespread deforestation to expand plantations for palm oil has been occurring in countries to our north such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

The most widely highlighted environmental impact from this is the threat to the survival of the orang-utan. It seems appealing to people’s concern about orang-utan extinction connects with people more than appealing to concern about the impacts on human beings.

The logging, much of it illegal, threatens the survival of the culture, traditions and food sources of the Penan, an indigenous tribal group who live in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. The Penan have been fighting a losing battle for some time, but they had a win recently.

Malaysian blogger and Member of Parliament, Jeff Ooi, has written that the advertising regulator in the United Kingdom has banned an advertisement placed by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council. The ban occurred due to a finding that the advertisement’s claims that Malaysian palm oil was ‘sustainable’ and contributed to ‘the alleviation of poverty, especially amongst rural populations’ were misleading and unverified. A small win perhaps, but one which should draw more attention to the serious impacts of forest clearing and the unsustainable nature of much of the palm oil industry.

Ooi is trying to pursue the issue of the impact on the Penan people in the Malaysian Parliament. But I suspect they will continue to be fighting an uphill battle unless greater consumer power is brought to bear against the expanding use of palm oil.  So far, I haven’t noticed a great deal of coverage of this issue in the Australian media.

Of course, continuing deforestation will make meeting greenhouse emission targets a great deal harder, so we all have a direct interest in this.

PS: This report suggests similar problems are occurring in Uganda, with the involvement of a Malaysian palm oil company.