Environmental Group Blasts Nestlé Over Palm Oil

The world’s largest food and beverage company has run into difficult times, as environmentalists charge it with destroying rare wildlife habitat and rainforests that serve as carbon sinks.  Following publication of a report linking Nestlé’s use of the food ingredient palm oil to destruction of rainforests in Indonesia, more than 100,000 supporters of environmental group Greenpeace have emailed the company asking Nestlé to sever ties with palm oil suppliers that destroy rainforests.  Many of the same activists have also flooded Nestlé’s Facebook page with comments criticizing the use of palm oil.

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The damning report, titled “Caught Red-Handed: How Nestlé’s Use of Palm Oil is Having a Devastating Impact on Rainforests, the Climate, and Orangutans,” was published by Greenpeace International on March 17th, 2010.  The report focuses on Nestlé’s sourcing of palm oil from Sinar Mas, the largest palm oil-producing company in Indonesia.  According to Greenpeace, Sinar Mas engages in agricultural practices that include clearing vast areas of rainforest, encroaching into orangutan habitat, and breaking Indonesian forestry law.  “Despite Sinar Mas’ track record and increasingly dirty reputation,” wrote Greenpeace in the report, “Nestlé has no policies in place to avoid dealings with the group and continues to buy palm oil from Sinar Mas.”

Following the release of the report, thousands of Greenpeace supporters logged onto Nestlé’s Facebook page to register their discontent.  Many web activists focused on the impact of palm oil plantations on the highly endangered orangutan, which has become the poster child for the disappearing rainforests of Southeast Asia.  “We all want your KitKats,” one activist wrote to Nestlé via Facebook, “but not how they’re served now.”

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Palm Oil Plantation

In response to what has become a major public relations disaster for Nestlé, the company has announced it is cancelling its direct purchases from Sinar Mas, and that all its palm oil purchases will come from sustainable sources by 2015.  Yet Greenpeace maintains the 2015 date is not soon enough, and that Nestlé still buys from Sinar Mas indirectly through other companies like Cargill.  Meanwhile the Indonesian Palm Oil Growers Association is threatening a boycott of its own if Nestlé complies with the demands of Greenpeace. 

The Greenpeace-led campaign against Nestlé is in many ways just the latest manifestation of a growing concern among environmentalists that Indonesia’s rainforests are disappearing at breakneck speed – threatening to take hundreds of endangered species like the orangutan with them.  Large-scale deforestation in Indonesia largely began in the 1960s under the dictator Suharto.  Though Suharto resigned in 1998, the systematic corruption which characterized his 30-year regime continues to plague Indonesian government today and makes major reform difficult.  In recent years, the massive expansion of the palm oil industry in Indonesia has increased the rate of deforestation even more and inspired a wave of criticism from groups like Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network. 

A week after release of the report which triggered the online protests, the flood of messages on Nestlé’s Facebook page shows little sign of abating.  “A KitKat lasts seconds,” read one comment from Wednesday night.  “Extinction is forever.”  It’s not clear yet how Nestlé will respond to Greenpeace’s request that it cut ties with customers of Sinar Mas like Cargill.  But the next few weeks should continue to be very interesting for the iconic producer of the KitKat.

Photo Credit: Palm Oil Plantation

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