Mobile phone tracking system detects illegal rainforest destruction for palm oil production

Burning rainforest in Sumatra to make way for palm oil plantations

Palm oil plantations are big business and its growing. To make the space for these plantations, businesses are cutting down rainforests; virgin forests which have been the home of many wild species for thousands of years. The palm oil industry kills wild cat species.

Burning rainforest in Sumatra to make way for palm oil plantations

Burning rainforest in Sumatra to make way for palm oil plantations. Photo: UN Environment Programme.

Palm oil is used in many household products such as Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Magnum, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Dove soap and Knorr soup.

Mills (supply plants) in Sumatra, Indonesia sometimes source from palm oil plantations that have been carved out of land illegally deforested or the plantations are owned by companies linked to deforestation.

Unilever, a British-Dutch company is using a mobile phone tracking system to trace lorry drivers delivering palm fruit to supplier mills. The data is combined with satellite images which allows them to gather patterns of movements which in turn allows them to detect businesses linked to illegal deforestation.

Millions of virgin rainforest are cleared annually often by setting fire to them to make way for new plantations. This deforestation threatens 193 species including tigers, gibbons and orangutans according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

In 2019, Greenpeace criticised Unilever for presenting the idea that they were relying on sustainable Palm oil when in fact, on an investigation, they found that some suppliers of certified (certified to come from sustainable plantations) palm oil were linked to rainforests which had been cleared with fires.

The certification system is deeply flawed, admitted Unilever. Their tracking system will allow them to collate more accurate information and monitor the supply chain more precisely and rigorously.

They decided that, “Certification does not equal the definition of deforestation-free. You just get a certificate but you don’t know where your commodity is coming from”.

The new system is not foolproof either but it is a big step in the right direction.

“But it goes a lot further than what we have today, which is nothing”.

Greenpeace said that Unilever had to go further by making “full transparency from suppliers a condition of trade”. They should only buy from companies that could prove that they were clean, Greenpeace said. Habitat loss is the biggest threat to wild species. Many are endangered and some are going extinct in the wild. The Sumatran tiger is one such species. It is smaller than other species of tiger.