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Reporter's notebook: Palm oil production devastating Sumatran forests

By Arwa Damon, CNN
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Palm oil problem
  • Production of palm oil big contributor to deforestation in Sumatra
  • Global demand for palm oil now tops 40 million tonnes per year
  • Soaps, chocolates, margarine and cosmetics regularly contain palm oil
  • Palm oil production is central to the economies of Indonesia and Malaysia

Sumatra, Indonesia (CNN) -- As we drive through central Sumatra, what looks like a scene from some apocalyptic movie where an unknown force has obliterated all life on earth unfolds before us.

The land is tinted a sick gray. Some parts still smolder. Twisted hulks of tree trunks take on abnormal shapes. A dark black canal cuts perfectly through. It's nearly impossible to imagine that this was once lush tropical rainforest.

In other parts as far as the eye can see, a sea of emerald green. But the rolling hills are not covered in natural forest -- instead they're covered in palm plantations.

Their emerald green color splashed across rolling hills give the impression that this is untouched nature. But the deafening silence inside the plantations are a clear indication that they are lifeless ecosystems, part of a global factory churning out one of the most in-demand products out there -- palm oil.

We are running out of time here, we are at the end of the tunnel
--Peter Pratje

In supermarkets across the world products containing palm oil regularly fly off the shelves -- soaps, chocolates, margarine, cosmetics.

Most consumers have no idea that they contain palm oil which often hides behind the label of "vegetable oil" and even less of a clue that conservationists are singling it out as being one of the main driving forces behind deforestation.

Clearing forests for agriculture isn't exactly new, but palm is quickly becoming the crop of choice.

It is fast growing with high yields -- global demand now tops 40 million tonnes a year and is central to the economies of Malaysia and Indonesia.

But the rampant tearing down of Indonesia's natural forests have made this tropical nation the world's third largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Already, 85 percent of Sumatra's forests are gone and what is left is disappearing at an alarming rate.

"We are running out of time here, we are at the end of the tunnel," Peter Pratje with the Frankfurt Zoological Society tells us at an orangutan sanctuary in the heart of Sumatra. Sumatran orangutans are expected to be the first great ape to become extinct -- due to the loss of their natural habitat, just one of many species threatened because of unchecked deforestation.

"The problem is there is no second chance," Pratje adds. "If you shut down an ecosystem that is hundreds of years old you can't re-grow it any longer, so this is the last chance. If you don't protect it, we can't hope that later we can correct this error."

It's a reality that even the largest buyers and producers of palm oil acknowledge.

Consumer products giant Unilever spearheaded a movement towards sustainable palm oil cultivation the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) which gathered palm producers, manufacturers, and green groups to find a sustainable way to cultivate palm.

"If agriculture cannot be made sustainable then we as a food and home and personal care company are in trouble," Jan Kees Vis, Unilever and RSPO president explains.

But critics like Greenpeace fault the RSPO's standards for being too weak and say that they can't control their members.

"What we are against is the deforestation and the peat land destruction," Bustar Maitar, a Greenpeace activist tells us.

At the moment, only three to four percent of globally produced palm oil is certified by the RSPO. It's a drop in the bucket now, but the RSPO expects the volume to double in the next year.

But that probably won't be enough to save Sumatra's forests or our environment. Conservationists say that its time for companies to control their desire for more money, governments to start seriously enforcing forest protection laws and individual consumers to take on responsibility and make lifestyle changes.

For Sumatra, it might already be too late.