Palm oil plantations and smog – if you’re in Singapore, just don’t breathe

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The latest air pollution index in Singapore is 371. A value of 100 or more on this index is considered unhealthy, anything above 200 is considered very unhealthy, and over 300 is considered dangerous.

So 371 is really-honestly-we-really-mean-this dangerous. So dangerous that birds are dropping from the sky: see the link at the top and google “air pollution Singapore” for some frightening images.

So what does this have to do with biodiversity? Well, much of the pollution is often caused by illegal burning of virgin forest in Indonesia to clear ground for palm oil plantations. Given that the forests that get burnt comprise very complex ecosystems, this means an enormous loss of habitat and biodiversity, as well as air pollution.

Some of the area being devastated to make room for palm oil plantations is on the island of Borneo, at 130 million years old the oldest rainforest in the world and home to endangered species such as the orangutan and clouded leopard, as well as many plant, insect, bird, and small mammal species.

Many of these have no other place to go. Plants can’t migrate fast enough or far enough, even if there were a suitable ecosystem for them to migrate to, and while large mammals can move, they need large connected areas of untouched habitat in order to survive. This applies particularly to apex predators like the clouded leopard: in addition to the large areas of habitat, they need large populations of prey species to feed on.

Which brings us back, as always, to the concept of value. As Mat McDermott wrote in another TreeHugger post, palm oil is present in a surprising number of consumer purchases, from food to biodiesel. It’s everywhere, and mostly unlabelled. But it is possible to get sustainable palm oil already, although as it costs a little more, most companies don’t use sustainably grown palm oil.

All of which means that in our economy, a few cents is considered more important than a complex, 130 billion year old ecosystem and the varied life it supports. And it’s not until we can address that fundamental disparity in value that we can address the problems of habitat destruction, both in Borneo and across the world.

In the meantime, Singapore residents will have to wear face masks while the rainforest retreats.

[Bornean clouded leopard. Image by Spencer Wright, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0]


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