Palm Oil, Lemurs, Orangutans, and the Environmental Impact of Monoculture

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The first time it ever occurred to me that I could be being deceived by my fantasy granddad and the world’s favourite Britain, Sir David Attenborough, was when I watched a brilliant documentary series: Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve. This upsetting revelation happened during the episode ‘Madagascar to the Seychelles’, when Simon disclosed that documentaries showcasing the rainforests in Madagascar and it’s many furry inhabitants had to be harshly edited in order to crop out the ugly truth: only approximately ten percent of it’s rainforests remain. The rest of the land has been used to grow cash crops – predominantly cotton.

Should you take a look at the un-cropped shots of the much-loved lemurs, hopping around in their beguiling fashion, you’d be horrified to see the concrete and iron huts belonging to the reserve they are now housed in. This reserve, Simon explains, is not much bigger than a London park.

Before that moment, I’m ashamed to say I never even thought to question the images I was shown of this beautiful planet and all of her unique and wonderful inhabitants. It never occurred to me that out of shot there could be a hotel or a shop or a road. I believed in untouched, virgin corners of the planet filled with life in all of its many shapes and colours, because this is what was being presented to me by a trusted old school explorer complete with beige safari suit and gentle, plummy cadence.

(This isn’t a direct pop at SDA, by the way, he’s still my fantasy granddad. It’s a personal example of how the right presentation of information can bypass your reasonable, questioning mind and simply be accepted as The Truth.)

The consequences of monocultures (industrial-scale agriculture) are seldom felt more harshly than by the earth’s primary inhabitants. Those gentle indigenous creatures with no voice and no real power. The very wildlife that we should take the responsibility to nurture is frequently seen as a pesky inconvenience when there are big bucks to be made.

Thanks to the deforestation that is happening every day to make way for cash crops such as palm oil, thousands of species – including one of our closest relatives, the critically endangered orangutan – are being slaughtered in what can only be described as genocide on a massive scale.

Describing the outcome for orangutans in Borneo, Deborah Bassett wrote in the Huffington Post:

“Typically, the companies responsible for “clearing” the forest hire hunters to slaughter the remaining orangutans who have not already been burned to death during the fires or killed by falling from their treetop homes while being hunted for bushmeat. More often than not, orphaned babies are taken and later sold as illegal pets or into torturous conditions to local “zoos” that resemble primate prison camps.”

And it’s not just animals who are affected. It’s the indigenous people.

Sadly, those men, women and children who owned the land were probably promised an abundance of riches in exchange for substituting their diverse crops for an endless single plantation. They weren’t to know that once these plantations had robbed the soil of it’s nutrition and the deforestation had damaged their natural drainage system, that the soil would erode when the rains came and they’d be left with nothing but useless dirt. No home, no income, no food, and no means of replacing what they’d lost.

Indigenous people used to farm in a way that was harmonious with their own geology. They rotated their crops so as not to take too much from the soil, they planted diversely, they created terraces to prevent soil erosion. These traditional practices are not nearly bombastic enough to yield the volume of product required by the mass market.

Nope, in order for you and I to conveniently enjoy our morning coffee and toast, industry demands endless fields of single crop plantations, or monocultures. That T shirt you’re wearing? Probably courtesy of a monoculture. OJ? Monoculture. Banana? Monoculture. Soap? Mono… well, you get the picture.

And I’m not even touching upon the environmental impact caused by the subsequent transportation and processing of these products. That’s a whole other post.

So, what can we do? Well, firstly we have to completely change our perspective on what we eat and how it’s produced. Everything must be scaled down to a local level. Own a garden? Great – research permaculture. You can grow pretty much everything you need to eat well in your own back yard, and it can still function as an attractive outdoor space. The food you eat will be full of nutrients, straight out of the ground, and it will taste better too. If you’re not lucky enough to have a big garden, even if you just have a yard or a windowsill, you can grow things in bags, pots, crates. Hell, you can grow carrots in a wellington boot if you like.

If gardening really isn’t your thing, if you’re too busy (or you just don’t like getting your hands dirty), try and buy as much as you can from independent, local producers. Really what it comes down to is this: you have to accept the fact that if convenience is your biggest concern above all else, chances are the products you’re buying might be ethically shady. It might be that you have to put in a bit more effort to find out where your food, clothes and cosmetics really come from and what the impact is at the source of that product.

Fact is, this is no longer optional. Buying locally sourced, organic produce isn’t just a middle-class smugness sport, it’s a real necessity if we want to have any impact on the lives of endangered species and our fellow man.

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6 thoughts on “Palm Oil, Lemurs, Orangutans, and the Environmental Impact of Monoculture

  1. Genocide is the right word. It’s disheartening to see humans forget their kinship with other species. They deserve rights and personhood as well. It’s difficult to realize we belong to such a destructive species.

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  2. Such a well written blog…monoculture is so destructive to our planet, but it’s being encouraged by big companies like Monsanto. The American fruit Company have been doing it for decades in Central America…buying land from the local people, displacing them,then ruining their land with mono-cultures. Now these big agri-giants are going into Africa!

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