Nestle and Unilever ‘linked to Indonesian forest fires engulfing southeast Asia in noxious haze’

Andy Gregory
A young boy try to extinguish a fire at a peatland area near their neighbourhood in Pekanbaru, Sumatra: Wahyudi/AFP via Getty Images

Household brands such as Nestle, Unilever and P&G are buying palm oil from suppliers deemed partly responsible for forest fires currently ravaging Indonesia and blanketing swathes of southeast Asia in noxious haze, according to new research from Greenpeace.

The companies, along with some of the world’s largest palm oil traders, have been purchasing products from producers linked to some 10,000 fires, analysis of supply chain disclosures by Greenpeace suggests.

All of the companies buy palm oil from specific plantations under investigation for 2019 fires, and from plantations with court actions against them for 2015-2018 fires, the environmental group alleges.

The United Nations has warned nearly 10 million children are at risk due to air pollution from the fires, which have raged since July and are calculated to have released 360 million tonnes of CO2 between 1 August and 18 September – close to the UK’s total output in 2018.

“Companies have created a facade of sustainability. But they source from the very worst offenders across the board,” said Annisa Rahmawati, senior forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.

“The companies responsible for the fires and those who financially benefit from them should be held accountable for these environmental atrocities and the devastating health impacts caused by the fires.”

Four of the palm oil traders named in the report – Wilmar, Cargill, Musim Mas, and Golden-Agri Resources – were said to have supplied more than three quarters of the world’s palm oil in 2015, according to the Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry Research.

There are 30 producer groups most linked to Indonesia’s recurrent fires crises, all of whom trade to the global market, according to Greenpeace. Nestle has bought from 28 of these, Unilever from at least 27, and P&G from at least 22, the report alleged.

The annual fires are often started by farmers trying to clear land for palm oil and pulp plantations, using a technique known as slash and burn. Many of the deforested areas are on peatland, which unlocks centuries of carbon as it burns through the ground, often for weeks on end.

In August, the Indonesian government minister in charge of overseeing the palm oil industry announced more than 80 per cent of plantations were using illegal practices and flouting regulations.

Critically endangered orang-utans and Sumatran rhinoceros are among the species who dwell in the affected areas. Between July and October, more than 800,000 hectares of jungle were destroyed

In September, Malaysia closed 409 schools in the eastern state of Sarawak due to the haze, with the government forced to issue half a million face masks for residents.

The government has sent tens of thousands of officials to try and tackle the inferno, and arrested hundreds since the fires started.

But Indonesia has denied claims that the toxic haze shrouding Malaysia was caused by its forest fires.

A government spokesperson previously said the haze could have been caused by other fires currently raging in Malaysia, as well as in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, East Timor and Thailand.

Kuala Lumpur is shrouded in haze (AFP/Getty Images)

This year’s fires, exacerbated by dry weather, are the worst since 2015 – when the fires were attributed to 100,000 deaths and 500,000 casualties, a joint study by Harvard and Columbia universities found. Those affected lived mainly in Indonesia, but also in Malaysia and Singapore.

Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world and is found in everyday food items and cosmetics such as bread, crisps, ice-cream, breakfast cereals, chocolate, shampoo and washing powders.

Around 50 per cent of all packaged foods contain palm oil, according to the WWF.

Greenpeace’s supply chain analysis claims Nestle was linked to palm oil producers who had caused the largest area of deforestation between 2015 and 2018, amounting to an estimated 190,500 hectares.

Unilever were said to be linked to companies thought to be responsible for an area of 179,500 hectares during the same period.

A Nestle spokesperson said the company was deeply concerned about the fires and has been closely monitoring the situation. The company was committed to ensuring none of their products are associated with deforestation, they said.

“We are currently investigating and verifying occurrences of land cleared through burning, as we do for other deforestation clearances,” the spokesperson said.

“We will immediately cease sourcing from any supplier found to be linked to any deforestation activity. Ten suppliers have already been removed from the Nestlé palm oil supply chain for not complying with our Responsible Sourcing Standard requirements. This is publicly disclosed on our website.”

The spokesperson referred to Global Forest Watch data, which said more than three quarter of the 318,000 fire alerts this haze season have occurred outside concession areas.

“This suggests that these are carried out by independent producers and smallholder farmers who are looking at expanding their plots,” the spokesperson said. ”Our experience shows that preventing deforestation requires engaging with smallholder farmers. Actions need to support livelihoods and sustain communities.

“This is why we provide technical assistance to almost 50 000 smallholder farmers and are scaling up initiatives to help them increase crop productivity and diversify incomes. The aim is to make forest conservation economically attractive, restore forestry stocks and promote regenerative agriculture.”

A Unilever spokesperson said the company had already suspended sourcing from a number of suppliers within the report and that it was the only consumer goods company to publish a public grievance report so such issues could be identified and acted upon.

“We are currently reviewing the full list of companies to understand any possible links to our extended supply chain and, in line with our palm oil policy, will take any appropriate action,” a spokesperson said. “Better monitoring helps all of us to understand whether individual fires have been deliberately lit or are the unfortunate consequence of an extremely dry season in Indonesia.

“If burned out land is subsequently planted, it may indicate deliberate deforestation. For this reason, we have enhanced our efforts to increase traceability through emerging technologies such as satellites, geolocation, blockchain and artificial intelligence, and are working with major technology firms and start-ups to develop new approaches from which the whole industry can benefit.”

P&G were contacted for comment.

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