the Sri Lankan president announced that his government would ban all imports of palm oil, with immediate effect, and ordered the country’s plantation companies to begin uprooting their oil-palm monocultures and replacing them with more environmentally friendly crops. Citing concerns about soil erosion, water scarcity, and threats to biodiversity and public health, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa explained that his aim was to “make the country free from oil palm plantations and palm oil consumption.”
That’s a pretty radical move, and, as someone who’s spent the past few years writing a book about the global palm oil industry, one I fully support. Worldwide, production of palm oil has skyrocketed in recent decades — oil-palm plantations now cover an area larger than New Zealand — but the boom has meant devastation for the planet. The oil palm plant, Elaeis guineensis, thrives at 10 degrees to the north and south of the equator, a swath that corresponds with our tropical rainforests. Though they cover just 10 percent of Earth’s land surface, these ecosystems support more than half of all biodiversity. In Indonesia, the world’s number-one producer of palm oil, habitat loss due largely to industrial agriculture has meant that such iconic species as the Sumatran elephant, orangutan, rhinoceros, and tiger — in addition to various species of hornbill — have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Indigenous peoples who for generations have sourced their food, building materials, and everything else from the archipelago’s forests and rivers have been reduced to eking out existences under donated plastic tarps and begging by the side of the road.