Palm oil is unavoidable. Can it be sustainable?

Our appetite for the oil hurts the environment and wildlife. But Gabon hopes to show how to build an industry while protecting its forests.

Malaysia

Bunches of oil palm fruit harvested by hand are trucked to a mill for processing in mainland Malaysia. Oil palms yield more oil per acre than do other crops. But soaring demand for the world’s most popular vegetable oil has led to extensive deforestation and loss of wildlife in Indonesia and Malaysia, the biggest producers.
Photograph by PASCAL MAITRE

In southwestern Gabon, the old-growth forest stretches hundreds of miles. One January morning I disembark from a narrow boat on the shore of the Ngounié River with a few employees of Olam, a Singapore-based agribusiness company. Following elephant tracks, we plunge into the forest. We pass towering, ancient trees, chimpanzee nests, piles of day-old gorilla dung. Monkeys scamper overhead. A young Olam ranger yanks off his boots and climbs barefoot up a trunk, returning with handfuls of pink, plumlike fruits.

Wandering farther we find wild mangoes, kola nuts, bark that smells of garlic. At a sun-dappled clearing, fish splash in a watering hole. The trees around it have been scratched by elephant tusks.

To stand here in the slanting sunlight and imagine all this being razed is heart-stopping.

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