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The Sumatra dilemma

Melody Hansford

The choice is ours: Will we rise to protect this ecological treasure and the communities it sustains, or will Sumatra's rainforests succumb to the relentless march of palm oil plantations? The time to act is now, before paradise is plundered beyond redemption.

Off the coast of Indonesia, there lies an island called Sumatra. Its vast labyrinth of jungles harbors the rare Sumatran rhinoceros as well as the Sumatran tiger.  While indigenous tribes call the Sumatran rainforests home, palm oil manufacturers call the rainforests theirs to plunder. Deforestation would destroy the lifeline and vitality of the Sumatran rainforests that both man and beast have come to rely on for centuries.

For years, Sumatra has had acres upon acres of its forest destroyed for the sole purpose of benefiting first world economies.  Palm oil, one of the main products produced after deforestation occurs, exists in about 50% of American products. According to the Earth Law Center, “The most common products that contain palm oil are shampoos, instant noodles, packaged bread, lipsticks, soap and detergent.” 

This one product is produced in a way that is incredibly harmful to the rainforest’s environments. Palm oil plantations continue to replace the habitats of some of the rarest animal species in the world as well as force out the native peoples that reside in these forests. Consequently, the palm oil companies that commit these acts tend to do so through illegal conduct when they are blocked through legal channels.

  However, this is not to say that these companies exploit the forests without help from the inside. Sumatra’s government has been gripped in the hands of corruption for many years. It is quite common for companies to pay off political officials for access to protected areas of rainforest.

 In fact, these privately owned companies are frequently accused of violating human rights. Many of these palm oil companies have been linked with illegally cutting down protected habitats and land designated to both animals and people alike.  

Moreover, child labor is not uncommon within the palm oil industry. Villages are often destroyed when they exist within a potential palm oil farm. This leaves the people in these villages with nowhere else to go and are thus subjected to work within these plantations under subpar working conditions. 

Furthermore, 70% of the remaining Sumatran rainforests are planned to be cut down and reformed as acacia and palm oil plantations. “Scientists warn that many of Indonesia's species could be extinct in the wild within 20-30 years” according to John Vidal from the Guardian.

 For instance, in Sumatra there are less than 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild. This is in large part due to deforestation. 

When the tigers’ habitats are destroyed, they move closer to human populations searching for food. This ultimately leads to their deaths or serious injuries as they can pose a threat to the residing villagers.

 According to the World Wildlife Organization, “fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos remain in the wild in Borneo and Sumatra.” This alarming number has been the result of the loss of habitat as well as the mass poaching of the Sumatran rhinoceros.  

Additionally, the Orange Rimba, a tribe that resides within the Sumatran rainforest, is being forced to choose between their culture and their livelihoods. This people group has resided in Sumatra for centuries, and yet are forced to move frequently throughout the forest. They are also highly susceptible to the diseases that foreign loggers bring with them. Eventually, there will be no forest left, and the Orang Rimba will be forced to leave their traditional ways of life.  

Deforestation has brought an unintended plague to the animals and people that live in Sumatra’s rainforests. People forced to choose between their culture and their lives, and animals pushed to the brink of extinction due to poorly-thought development allowed by corrupt government officials acting for the benefit of their corporatist supporters.

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