Palm oil and its derivatives are used in everything from biscuits to shampoo and are found in roughly half of packaged goods sold in shops worldwide. Much of the palm oil produced can be described as ‘conflict palm oil’—this means its production is associated with rainforest and peatland destruction, and/or violations of human rights. Conflict palm oil is on the rise within the Leuser Ecosystem, leading to forest clearance using chainsaws and fire, and peatland drainage, to make way for oil palm plantations. Lack of law enforcement by local government means that much of the illegal expansion of palm oil in Leuser goes ahead unchecked.
The prevalence of conflict palm oil within the Leuser Ecosystem is a major problem with no simple solution. Alternative oil crops, such as soy, corn and rapeseed, require up to nine times as much land to produce the same amount of oil, so a complete switch away from palm oil would not solve the problem.
The Leuser Ecosystem is not only threatened by the continued expansion of oil palm plantations: land within the Ecosystem is also in demand for logging and industrial pulp plantations, and the development of new copper and gold mines. High international demand for wood products, including pulp and paper, from low-cost producers, is driving the destruction of forests for timber and for plantations of commercially valuable wood.
While the direct link between demand for land and forest destruction is clear, the plantations and mines have other negative impacts too. Large industries need infrastructure, so even more of the Leuser Ecosystem will be cleared to make way for roads. Additionally, loss of habitat for species such as Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran elephants and Sumatran tigers increases the risk of conflict between humans and wildlife, as the animals are displaced and driven into closer contact with people and their crops. For people themselves, the loss of forest also means reduced access to clean water, increased risk of landslides and possible exposure to harmful substances from the mining process.