The Indonesian Rainforest needs Earth Law to combat Palm Oil production

Figure 1 Photo by Fabrizio Frigeni on Unsplash

Figure 1 Photo by Fabrizio Frigeni on Unsplash

By Sara Bellan

What if Earth Law could help strengthen the protection of natural habitats critical to orangutan, and other animals, survival?

Nearly a quarter of a million Orangutans used to live on that this planet just a couple hundred years ago. Today less than 70,000 Orangutans remain. There are numerous threats to Orangutans, particularly those in the Indonesian Rainforest. Threats to the Orangutans include: habitat destruction, illegal hunting and animal trading. Upwards of 80% of Orangutan’s habitat has been lost in the last 20 years. Both Sumatran Orangutans and Bornean Orangutans face extinction in less than 25 years due to these practices.

What drives rainforest destruction?

Palm Oil Practices

Over 3 million pounds of palm oil was imported into the US in 2017, finding its way into everything from detergents to processed foods.  Around 50% of United States products contain palm oil. So, what is palm oil being used for? The US is not alone in its love of this cheap oil - rates of palm oil consumption have quadrupled around the world since the 1990s. The most common products that contain palm oil are shampoos, instant noodles, packages bread, lipsticks, soap and detergent.

Figure 2 Palm Oil Factory Sevki79 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Figure 2 Palm Oil Factory Sevki79 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Most of the world’s palm oil comes from Malaysia (43%) and Indonesia (44%). Indonesia also happens to contain the world’s largest rainforest, with a diverse ecosystem and a large amount of biodiversity. This ecosystem, and biodiversity within it, is critical to the planet as a whole. The Indonesian rainforests host 12% of mammal species, 17% of the world’s bird species and 10% of the vascular plant species in the world. While palm oil, in itself, is not a bad resource, the practices within the industry are currently harmful. The continued use of this product relies on the improvement of the current practices within the palm oil industry.

Deforestation processes have drastically affected orangutans in Indonesia, as their habitat continues to shrink. But, other animals have been affected as well. These practices, particularly of deforestation and habitat loss, have caused animals to suffer and many to be listed as endangered. These animals that have been affected by these practices include: Sumatran Tigers, Javan Leopards, the Tapir, Javan and Sumatran Rhinoceroses, Sumatran Elephants, Sun Bears, and many others. The palm oil industry, and the practices that accompany it, have caused endangerment of Indonesian animals to be common throughout the ecosystem.

Figure 3 Indonesian rainforest in Aceh. Junaidi Hanafiah [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3 Indonesian rainforest in Aceh. Junaidi Hanafiah [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Palm oil has also affected the vast diversity of plants in Indonesia. The diversity of plants in Indonesia is so vast; it is matched only by the Amazonian ecosystem. About 40,000 species of flowering plants have been observed in Indonesia, with 40% of them only existing in this ecosystem. There are more than 3,000 different tree species that make up the rainforest in Indonesia. Much of this biodiversity is at risk due to deforestation and wildfires. 

Where palm plantations get established, deforestation occurs. Palm oil plantations require large plots of land, which require deforestation practices to create and expand the plantations. Extensive clearing not only removes critical habitat for endangered species, but also releases large amounts of carbon dioxide stored in trees. Indonesia has become the fifth highest emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses due to these practices. Deforestation has also caused soil erosion, along with soil and water pollution from palm oil extraction, and decreases rainfall absorption thus increasing the risk of floods.

Humans suffer, too. Palm oil has been identified as one of the most common sources of forced work and child labor in the world, by the United States Department of Labor. The co-violations report provided by ELC state, “The displacement of local communities from their traditional lands, the destruction of waterways and other natural systems relied upon by communities for sustenance, the pattern of labor abuse and slavery arising from the palm oil industry, and the deaths of thousands of people from palm oil industry-related fires implicates multiple human and indigenous rights violations.” 

Workers report illegal servitude and debt bondage. “Investigations into cases of forced and child labor in Indonesia’s palm oil industry have revealed workers and children being held captive, deprived of clean drinking water, working without pay for up to two years, and beaten when escape is attempted.” Land grabs, meaning the government or businesses taking or bribing land from the original residents, have been common in the palm oil industry. Land grabs to expand palm oil plantations have largely impacted poor and indigenous populations, leading to the displacement of entire communities.

A solution: Rights for the Indonesian Rainforest           

The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth has outlined the right to exist, right to regenerate, right to health and the right to supported restoration after known violations in Indonesia. These rights are critical to maintain for the ecosystem, biodiversity and people within Indonesia. While palm oil can still be a utilized and beneficial resource, as it can be more sustainable than other vegetable oils the current practices that are being implemented in the palm oil industry are not working. Instead of boycotting palm oil or trying to eradicate the use of palm oil all together, we can advocate for more sustainable practices, less deforestation practices and more use of already bare land, and create protections for the animals within the Indonesian Rainforest.

Earth law could enable local communities to have legal standing in the courts. This would allow citizens to address both environmental and human rights violations. Earth Law could provide a backing for people to address these issues through the legal system, and through the courts. As this would outline rights for the ecosystem and habitats in Indonesia, it could prevent further human rights violations as well. People could bring forth a case that would help to prevent the degradation of the ecosystem, and as a result provide rights for the people within Indonesia against the large palm oil industry. This would help to provide a safety net for human rights violations, as well as animal and earth rights violations. 

Governance and management plans that recognized the rainforest’s right to exist, thrive and evolve would also support a healthy ecosystem while preserving and restoring biodiversity. Rainforest rights are critical in Indonesia, and have shown drastic results in other places. In Colombia, the Amazon Rainforest was granted personhood and rights along with this status. A group of young human rights advocates sued the Colombian government in an effort for their right to exist within a healthy ecosystem and environment. This group of young advocates won this case, through the intersections of human rights violations and earth rights violations. This granted personhood to the Amazonian Rainforest within Colombia. This status gave rights to the rainforest and urged the government to reevaluate their relationship with the rainforest. This move towards providing rights for the Rainforest in Indonesia could help prevent further deforestation, human rights violations, animal rights violations, and help sustain a healthy ecosystem.

This move toward rights was not alone, as a national park in New Zealand was provided legal rights. The now former national park, Te Urewera, was a large plot of land that was owned by the government up until this case. Te Urewera is located on a small Island within New Zealand that is the home to the Maori population. Maori groups presented this case in an effort to preserve the region's ecosystem and their land. The result of the case was that the Te Urewera land was recognized as having all the legal rights and protections of a human. This allowed for violations against the land to be brought to the courts, and protected through legal channels. This case can set an example for the Indonesian case, as the rights of the land and the people within the land were intertwined. Through the case of Te Urewera, an example of legal protections for the land can be seen. 

The Indonesian Rainforest deserves rights and protections to exist, thrive and evolve. The Colombian Amazonian case and the New Zealand Te Urewera case show that rights provided to the ecosystem can protect everything encompassed within that land. Legal rights for the Indonesian Rainforest would protect from deforestation, protect the population from land grabs and intentional wildfires, protect the workers from illegal and unsafe working conditions, and protect the animals and plants from endangerment and unhealthy habitat conditions, while still allowing for the use of palm oil in some of our products.

ELC works to provide the earth with legal support and legally recognized rights. We work to create laws and protections that recognize the rights of nature. If you would be interested in learning more about Earth Law’s work on the rights of nature, you can sign up to receive our newsletter here.

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