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Palm oil

Palm Oil plantation

Credit: Wikimedia / Achmad Rabin Taim

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That's a big problem - is it the only one?

Unfortunately, no.

The forests being cleared are rich and complex ecosystems, and it is estimated by the Palm Oil Action Group that between 80 to 100 per cent of their birds, mammals and reptiles cannot survive in the plantations that replace them.

At particular risk is the orang-utan, whose only remaining habitat is prime target for clearing.

As many as 50 orang-utans die every week as a result of palm oil industry activities, according to the Australian Orangutan Project.

Since 1990 the number of Sumatran orang-utans has fallen by 91 per cent, with only 7,300 left.

Sumatran tigers, Asian elephants and rhinos are also at risk.

So what's being done?

The palm oil industry will inevitably continue to expand - the challenge is finding ways for it to do so sustainably.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to establish environmental standards for the industry. However, concerns have been raised about the effectiveness of its efforts since it is a self-regulated body.

Nonetheless, small victories are being made. Several Indonesian provinces have enforced temporary bans on forest clearing for palm oil production, for example.

And in 2008 the Malaysian government announced intentions to prohibit further forest destruction and focus on the conversion of existing agricultural land instead.

I'm worried. What can I do?

Curent Australian legislation calls only for palm oil to appear as 'vegetable oil' on labels, making it virtually impossible to avoid - so ditching all your kitchen and bathroom products that contain it really isn't a workable option.

Instead, be active in your support for the production of sustainable palm oil.

Look out for products that do use RSPO certified sustainable palm oil (the first batch went on the market in September of 2008), and write to manufacturers and local and state government ministers about your concerns.

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