CRISTINA PEDLER WRITES – Sri Lanka is leading the way in banning palm oil imports and phasing out cultivation.

In an unexpected turn of events, Sri Lanka has banned imports of palm oil and new palm plantations, and told producers to uproot existing plantations in a phased manner. An announcement from the President’s office stated that “those companies and entities which have done such (palm oil) cultivations shall be required to remove them in a phased manner with 10% uprooting at a time and replacing it with the cultivation of rubber or environmentally friendly crops each year.”  Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa says the aim is to “make the country free from oil palm plantation and palm oil consumption.” This is excellent news that could very well start a trend for other plantations.

Moving away from palm oil cannot necessarily be done overnight. Palm oil is the most widely-used vegetable oil in the world and is one of the world’s most productive crops. The country has around 11,000 hectares (27,181 acres) of palm plantations. Sri Lanka imported 131,000 tons of palm oil last year, up from 160,000 tons in 2019, with almost 90% coming from Malaysia. According to estimates from the Sri Lanka Palm Oil Industry Association, Sri Lankan oil production has invested 26 billion rupees (131 million U.S. dollars).

Nevertheless, baby steps are better than no steps, especially when contending with global climate change. Palm oil has been and continues to be the major driver of deforestation in some of the world’s most biodiverse forests. We have now replaced 27 million hectares of virgin jungle with a single species of tree. Palm oil production is responsible for about 8% of the world’s deforestation from 1990 to 2008.

And there is another sad fact to consider: Palm oil plantations have destroyed the habitats of endangered wildlife, like our closest ancestors, the orangutan. It is now estimated that we lose 100 orangutans a week. Lowland jungle habitat has declined by 75%.

Activists and environmentalists around the world are glad to see Sri Lanka doing the right thing. If similar efforts are considered by other countries in a way that cuts production and consumption of such a harmful crop, they will go a long way in preserving biodiverse environments – such as rainforests – both in Southeast Asia and around the world.

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