The Leuser Ecosystem: At the frontlines of extinction

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This blog comes to us from Heather Rally, a wildlife veterinarian who worked on the covert operations for Racing Extinction. 

You have likely heard of the Amazon or the Congo, but the lesser-known Leuser Ecosystem on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, is just as biologically diverse, just as important to the continued survival of species, and just as important for our global climate.

Stretching over 6.5 million acres, the Leuser Ecosystem is the last place on Earth where rare species like Sumatran tigers, orangutans, rhinos, elephants and sun bears live together in the wild. It provides habitat for at least 105 mammal species, 382 bird species, and 95 reptile and amphibian species. If we lose the Leuser Ecosystem, we risk losing many of these species forever.

The Leuser Ecosystem is not only important for the unique plants and animals that call it home, but it’s also necessary for millions of people that depend on it for a clean, steady water supply. Globally, we all depend on it: the Leuser Ecosystem plays a critical role in helping to regulate our global climate by absorbing carbon pollution and storing massive amounts of carbon in its lowland rainforests and peatlands.

Despite the importance of this critical biodiversity hotspot, vast areas of its rainforests and peatlands are being destroyed for new Conflict Palm Oil plantations.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is found in roughly half of all packaged goods; everything from cookies, chips, and instant noodles to lipstick, shampoo and detergent. As the cheapest vegetable oil in the world, the skyrocketing demand for this commodity has driven industrial-scale plantations deep into the rainforests of Indonesia. The forests of the Leuser Ecosystem are no exception and are increasingly being targeted for palm oil expansion.

How can I know which products containing palm oil are truly sustainable?

The vast majority of palm oil found in our household products is known as Conflict Palm Oil as it is linked to the destruction of rainforests, climate pollution and human rights abuses. Right now mainstream companies are not using palm oil in their products that is truly conflict-free. Consumers are being misled by labels on products that say “sustainable palm oil,” which is a term that has been diluted and overused as a greenwashing tactic to the point that it is no longer a useful term to distinguish good palm oil from bad. This is why there is a growing movement calling for truly responsible palm oil, which adheres to a higher standard of production and does not contribute to deforestation, species extinction, high greenhouse gas emissions or human rights violations.

Why not boycott palm oil altogether?

Palm oil has become the most widely used vegetable oil in the world and demand continues to climb in major markets such as in China, India, Pakistan, Europe and the United States. The pervasive nature of palm oil is also why boycotting products that contain it would be nearly impossible. Instead this growing movement must, first and foremost, demand a transformation of the way palm oil is produced globally. This approach is already proving successful as each year more and more of the companies that buy, sell and use palm oil in their products have adopted responsible palm oil commitments. But we must hold these companies accountable and turn these paper promises into real change on the ground in the forests of Indonesia where it matters most.

What can I do?

Given the scale of the climate and biodiversity crisis, we must act now.  

We all have a role to play in the palm oil story. We can #StartWith1Thing and demand that companies cut Conflict Palm Oil. Using our consumer power, we can drive a change in the way palm oil is produced.

In the fall of 2015 I had the opportunity to visit the Leuser Ecosystem and witnessed first hand its beauty juxtaposed with its destruction. We can’t afford to lose this priceless ecosystem for an ingredient found in our snack foods. That’s why I need your help today.

Join our friends at Rainforest Action Network in calling on the biggest palm oil companies in the world to halt the destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem.