Oil Wars Bring Local Victory

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Palm oil is emerging as a major environmental battleground. The thick oil has become a nearly ubiquitous ingredient in cosmetics and processed foods, and rainforests around the world are being cleared to accommodate expanding production.

Rainforests aren't just arbitrarily the holy grail of environmentalists: They hold more species and trap more carbon per acre than any other ecosystem. The last pristine rainforests (and the last habitat of the highly endangered orangutan) in the world are in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and it is in those countries where palm oil production is exploding. Global demand makes it a valuable commodity.

The Indonesian government had responded to pressure not to continue clearing rainforests to grow the stuff, but reversed course just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton popped in for a visit earlier this month.

But a San Francisco group that campaigns against unsustainable palm oil has scored a significant victory in these oil wars. Last week, the national natural grocery chain Whole Foods succumbed to pressure from SF's Rainforest Action Network to stop using palm oil of questionable origin in its private label products. The move comes just as Whole Foods positions itself to open a fourth SF location, in Noe Valley.

The Chronicle has covered Unilever's support for an Indonesian moratorium on clearing new forestland, but RAN still considers Unilver as part of the "Dirty 19" (down from 20 after Whole Food's pledge).

What you can do: Check food labels for palm oil, palm kernel oil or palmitate, and avoid these products.

Photo: Greenpeace, which also campaigns against palm oil. This activist was attached to a tanker transporting millions of gallons of palm oil.

By Cameron Scott

San Francisco Chronicle
Cameron Scott
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

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