West Kalimantan Fadeaway



The hairy, ginger-colored primate strutted awkwardly toward us, like an unsure toddler learning to walk, until he halted, squared himself up, and glared. His wondrous gaze of seeming defiance — long arms, the length of his lower body and nearly scraping the ground, drawn to his side like a cocky young boxer sizing-up his competition, his troglodytic fists clinched, and one bushy foot’s elongated toes charmingly curled under – captured the inherently playful, intelligent, and soulful good nature of the species. The back of my neck sprouted goosebumps of excitement as I watched behind a protective window. The majestic Red Ape, as it’s called, was, after all, the ultimate reason I had come to West Kalimantan, an Indonesian sector of Borneo, in the first place. And this glorious, hirsute beast who pranced over to check us out was “Grendon.” He and his kind once roamed the jungle forests aplenty, and lived among its tree top canopy in numbers once so plentiful that the indigenous people dubbed them “orang-utan” or “man of the forest.”


A few days earlier, however, Borneo’s visual environmental marvels weren’t so enticing. In fact, Indonesia’s West Kalimantan was anything but a conservation nirvana. Everywhere I went smelled like smoke. The acrid, musky odor stung the nostrils and hung in the heavy, sticky air as if fire – whether from the burning of tires, garbage, sewage, stoves, peat bogs, internal combustion engines…or the rainforest – was a way of life in all the massive Third World squalor. Looking back, I could have just been imagining the omnipresent stench, but Borneo, which I heard in the late ’90s was the last great, wild, untouched wilderness frontier, now appeared to be a fetid sewer, blighted by the gloomy costs of poverty, greed, and overpopulation, at least in this part of West Kalimantan. But, then again, even upon my in-country arrival at the Jakarta airport on nearby Java, the jaunty taxi ride was so fraught with the telltale signposts of urban stain and decay, from crippled beggars and greasy street food kiosks to moped-choked city centers, that I texted my girlfriend back in California: “The shit just got real.”

But West Kalimantan’s natural marvels couldn’t all be this depressingly, shockingly disheartening, could they?  Where were the protected natural ecosystems and jungles where the last remaining orangutans lived? I mean, here I was, an attorney devoting pro bono time to a non-governmental organization called Orangutan Outreach (“OO”), and touring those charities that struggled at environmental devastation’s ground zero with a group of well-intentioned American environmentalists. But what I saw more often than not was the unethical, coldhearted destruction of the world’s last great rainforests to clear the way for plantations producing Indonesia’s relatively new cash crop, that horrible consumer staple that is palm oil. Indeed, Indonesia’s golden goose had turned the most populous religious (Muslim) country on Earth into a seemingly soulless, capitalist dystopia; a banana republic in the sinister grip of bribe-taking politicians, crooked cops, and the nascent palm oil mafia, all allegedly policed by a toothless trade organization called the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (“RSPO”), an Orwellian moniker for a “greenwashing” palm oil group that operated every way but “sustainable.” The RSPO, instead, is really just the “fox” of palm oil companies watching the proverbial hen house (the remaining rainforest).


So I knew the ethereal pall hanging over the villages and towns near the burning rainforests would be depressing. But nothing really prepared me for the dirty West Kalimantan sights, sounds, and smells of ecological destruction. In a word, it was positively soul-crushing. Palm oil, an ultimately needless, but relatively cheap, commodity in half of the world’s consumer products — from soaps, to cosmetics to candy — and derived from a tree native to West Africa thousands of miles away, had turned Indonesia’s island-dotted archipelago into a gold rush of greed, graft, and corruption. Now Indonesia (like Malaysia, which shares parts of Borneo) desperately needs palm oil for its very economic survival. Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of so much palm oil cultivation – namely, land clearing with only the most extreme prejudice — is the elimination of high conservation value habitat for critically endangered species like the orangutan, Sumatran rhino and Sumatran and Borneo pygmy elephant.

Thankfully for our easily-sapped spirits, patches of green forest, hope and conservation miracles were indeed found in those sanctuaries, rehab centers and protected nature preserves we visited in Indonesia. We saw cute, cuddly baby orangutan-rehabilitants wheeled around en masse in a wheelbarrow, like a bunch of hairy little coconuts, at BOS Nyaru Menteng (https://redapes.org/projects-partners/nyaru-menteng/) before being released back into what few wildlands that remained (their mothers most likely killed in the kidnappings that made them the orphans they were). We watched slow loris nursed back to health with Dr. Karmele Llano Sanchez at International Animal Sanctuary in Ketapang (https://redapes.org/projects-partners/iar-ketapang/). A sweaty climb to the top of an obtrusive, metallic observation tower in the Sabangau National Forest revealed thousands of protected hectares of jungle habitat below currently free for the moment from the environmental rape. After a slow, lazy voyage upriver in a dilapidated, exhaust-billowing “putt-putt-putt” boat straight out of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” we peeked our first glimpse of an orangutan mother and her two daughters in the tree tops of what could graciously be called ‘the wild.”  And on the nearby island of Sumatra, orangutan expert Dr. Ian Singleton mapped out the plat of untouched land his Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme had recently acquired to build its own orangutan haven, a serene world far away from the busy metropolis of Medan, now growing fat and bloated on palm oil money, just tens of kilometers away.

But it’s Grendon I remember most about West Kalimantan. That and how human greed has devastated his rainforest home; a wilderness canopy once so prevalent it literally covered the islands of Borneo (the third largest island in the world) and Sumatra like a massive, astonishing green carpet. I often daydream of what it all looked like before the damage colonialism, industrial development, authoritarian regimes like Suharto – and palm oil — wrought on the once untamed land.

I will go back soon. I’ll want to visit those sanctuaries again, and especially those sweet, sentient, red orangutans, though we can never hold them like the local indigenous people employed as skilled caretakers do, their hands and mouths covered by surgical gloves and masks to avoid cross-species contamination. By then, though, Grendon will probably have been released back into the protected forests that still remain; it takes six years to rehabilitate orphaned and/or displaced orangutans.  But I really know I’ll want to go back for another reason: to see Grendon’s rapidly depleting natural rainforest home before it’s too late and gone forever: the victim of Indonesia’s general, and West Kalimantan’s particular, sacrifice to the palm oil god.


GRENDON, The Great, January 2014

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Toosie Roll – Now Using Palm Oil?

Tootse Roll

Tootsie Roll has me stymied.  I thought they were one of the good guys on palm oil  Hell, it wasn’t just a few years ago where they were being held out as a paragon of palm oil virtue. In 2013, they were marked by containing no palm oil.

Found here.


And another group labeled Tootsie Rolls as being “Candy that does NOT contain palm oil: (ORANGUTAN-FRIENDLY!)”

Found here:


So imagine how shocked I was when I looked at the ingredients on my post-Halloween leftover candy at work.



So I wrote them, asking “what gives?!”  I mean just as the candy industry, especially Nestle, are moving away from old palm oil policies, Tootsie Roll silently seems to be swimming upstream and now…using palm oil?

Here’s their response:

XXXX, thank you for contacting us. Tootsie Roll Industries uses ingredients from only highly reputable vendors.  This is especially true for our palm oil suppliers.  The company has a supplier approval process that allows us to verify that our palm oil is obtained from vendors that employ environmentally sound sustainability practices.  Our palm oil suppliers design their production process in ways that ensure protection of the environment.

Well, knowing that RSPO certification (if that’s what they’re referring to), is as good as nothing at this point, I wrote back:

I have NO comfort that your vendors use “environmentally sound sustainability practices,” because there really is NO such thing.  Please give me more information on this, if you can.  RSPO certification it literally worthless in the conservation world and is merely green-washing. Their “mass balance” scheme, for instance, means they’re just offsets with environment-destroying palm oil.                                                                                                              
So, please, educate me more on your palm oil sustainability?                                                                                    
You guys didn’t even apparently use palm oil until somewhat recently, isn’t that correct?  In fact, I see many websites that labeled your candy “orangutan” or “rainforest” friendly as recently as 2011 – 2014.                                                                                   
What happened? Just as the whole world is being educated on just how bad palm oil is for the environment and people, and companies are moving away from it because of that destruction, Tootsie Roll decides to start using it?!                                                                   


Crickets.  Silence.  Tumbleweeds.

So I wrote again.  And again.

As of this date, Tootsie Roll has gone silent.  And for once, silence is not golden.

I will be boycotting Tootsie Rolls from now on — or at least until they answer one of my three follow-up emails.


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Clif Bar – Not Far Enough, Not There Yet, on Palm Oil



My girlfriend texted me from work the other day. She said, “I’m eating a Clif Bar, which has palm oil.  Just saw ingredients. It says organic palm oil.”

Knowing organic palm oil doesn’t mean anything when it comes to rainforest destruction, I wrote Clif Bar an email inquiring about their palm oil sourcing.

To be honest, I don’t know why I hadn’t written to them before.  Without getting into their whole Clif Bar ethos, their credo seems to be all about the environment.

Conserving and restoring our natural resources means growing a business that operates in harmony with the laws of nature.

Think again.

An attentive and prompt response came back quickly, pointing to their link that says:

Sustainable Palm Kernel Oil Sourcing

The adoption of Rainforest Alliance certification is a way to help address the environmental and social problems posed by the expansion of palm oil plantations – including deforestation, displacement of indigenous peoples and competition between large agribusinesses. By working to promote the sustainable production and manufacturing of palm oil and palm kernel oil, the Rainforest Alliance is helping to mitigate the social and environmental impacts of a growing industry.

Currently, 100 percent of our USDA-certified organic palm kernel oil is from South America and Rainforest Alliance certified.

We also source conventionally-grown palm kernel oil from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. We are currently transitioning our conventional palm kernel oil with the goal of sourcing 100 percent of our total palm kernel oil from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms.

Note that last paragraph.  So I wrote back:

Your link shows promise but this gives me MUCH concern:

Does your company know that “conventionally-grown” palm oil in Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines means:

– Deforestation

– Death of orangutans and other critically endangered species, like Sumatran rhino and Sumatran elephant

– Displacement of people

– Enslavement of workers in atrocious plantation conditions 

– Exacerbation of global warming?

HOW MUCH of your palm oil is sourced from these “conventionally-grown” plantations?  Because it’s THAT MUCH that contributes to the DESTRUCTION OF OUR PLANET.


They responded.

Hi again,

The adoption of Rainforest Alliance certification is a way to help address the environmental and social problems posed by the expansion of palm oil plantations – including deforestation, displacement of indigenous peoples and competition between large agribusinesses. By working to promote the sustainable production and manufacturing of palm oil and palm kernel oil, the Rainforest Alliance is helping to mitigate the social and environmental impacts of a growing industry.

Currently, 100 percent of our USDA-certified organic palm kernel oil is from South America, and certified both Rainforest Alliance and RSPO-IP. The RSPO-IP certification guarantees the traceability of palm oil from the field to origin. It’s the most stringent certification offered by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Spare me.  I responded again.

Anybody willing to go on the record about my comments below?  

What are you doing to transition?

When will that occur?

How much environmental destruction is Clif Bar willing to inflict on the world until then?

Why should we consumers wait?

How much of this shitty Indonesia/Malaysian “Conventional” palm oil do you use?

Why do you immediately write back when it’s easy to point to link but when I ask deeper questions you go silent.

Clif Bar’s caring about the environment only goes so far, I guess.

To their credit, they got back to me today.

I spoke to a few of my colleagues about where we are with transitioning to 100 percent of our total palm kernel oil from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms. We’re working diligently towards this goal and have found that it’s a very complicated process.  It’s incredibly hard to find suppliers who can meet our quantity and quality demands.  We’ve helped one supplier convert and are working with others to make this transition as well.  It takes time for this process to take root and we’re determined to make it happen.

I will hang on to your contact info and keep you updated over time as I learn more.

Thanks for your patience,

But I couldn’t let this rest.  Too many questions.

Thanks for this, So no timetable on WHEN that will occur? (There are other companies who’ve stopped using bad palm oil, see Dr. Bronner’s and Ben and Jerry’s.


So still some questions

How much environmental destruction is Clif Bar willing to inflict on the world until then?

Why should we consumers wait?

How much of this shitty Indonesia/Malaysian “Conventional” palm oil do you use?


I got another prompt response, but it’s obvious this person is getting tired of my crazy “enviro” ways.

No timetable on when. I’ve answered your questions as best I can and I’ve given you all the information I have. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.


Well, all this to say, Clif Bar KNOWS it’s destroying the environment, is dragging its feet on changing, makes excuses, and doesn’t follow its own credo, or business leaders like Dr. Bronner’s and Ben and Jerry.

I for one, knowing this, will BOYCOTT Clif Bars from now on — and advise my girlfriend and others to do likewise (including my employer’s kitchen).



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Updated: 8/24/2017: Lactaid “Milk”? — With Palm Oil?!


UPDATE: 8/24/2017

I took issue with Lactaid actually being able to say this with a straight metaphorical face:

We do not directly purchase palm oil (PO) or palm kernel oil (PKO) but rather ingredients that are derived from PO and PKO.”

It’s logically absurd, I maintained, writing back:

Do you think that gets you OFF THE HOOK for palm oil devastation? That’s like a cook saying they get their sweetener from corn syrup, which is derived from cornstarch but not from the actual fleshy part of the corn kernel that is part of the whole corn stalk.

Well, they agreed. And clearly they feel a bit responsible. Here’s their response:


Sorry for any confusion about the source of this ingredient. Johnson & Johnson Consumer, Inc. has an obligation to preserve the environment and we are implementing programs across the world to limit our footprint and environmental impact. In 2014 we published our Responsible Palm Oil Sourcing Criteria and engaged The Forest Trust to work with us and our largest suppliers to share supply chain information and assess compliance with our sourcing criteria which prohibits development in High Carbon Stock forests, peatlands and burning as a method to clear land for new developments or to re-plant. We do not directly purchase palm oil (PO) or palm kernel oil (PKO) but rather ingredients that are derived from PO and PKO.

Johnson & Johnson Consumer, Inc. has removed one supplier for noncompliance with our standards and we will continue to take appropriate measures to verify conformance and engage with other companies and NGOs to promote responsible palm oil production to address the environmental impact.

You can learn more about our work with The Forest Trust at: http://www.tft-transparency.org/member/johnson-johnson/?product=palm-oil.

We hope this is helpful.




Original Post:  8/18/2017

Who knew?  My girlfriend has been forcing me to buy Lactaid for a few months now.  Ever since I started using her new coffee machine (Nespresso; and, yes, we recycle/compost all the single use capsules), I’ve used the milk. But something didn’t seem right. If this wasn’t genuine milk, what else was in there?  Sure enough, it’s vitamin A palmitate.  Note the root word:  palm.  So I wrote a message to Lactaid on FB.

I bought your milk. I was shocked it contains vitamin A palmitate. From the root word seemingly palm, does your company derive this from rainforest-destroying palm oil? Orangutans are dying in the deforestation of their habitat, indigenous people are being enslaved in plantations. Global warming is exacerbated. Please tell me the source of your palm oil. Thank you.

What I got back shows a decidedly low brow take, not to mention a frighteningly uneducated “guess” on the palm oil query.

Hi, XXXX! We replied to your comments, but wanted to make sure you knew we saw your message as well. The Vitamin A Palmitate in our products is a natural fatty acid and not derived from palm oil. We hope the rest of your day goes well!

Woops! We mixed up our words a bit there 😊 The Vitamin A Palmitate is derived from palm oil, but is not made from palm trees. Sorry about that!


Wait, what?  Palm oil that doesn’t come from the fruit of oil palm trees?  I was incredulous, so I wrote back:

Wait, what? So where does your palm oil come from? I’d bet it DOES come from oil palm trees that are causing the deforestation in Indonesia/Malaysia, and creeping around the world

They wrote back, referring me to their corporate master’s statement on palm oil, but still sticking to their totally bogus claim that palm oil doesn’t come from palm trees (you know, the ones destroying the rainforests?).

Johnson & Johnson

As a branded personal products manufacturer and supplier, Johnson & Johnson Consumer, Inc. (J&J) sources ingredients derived from palm and palm kernel oil that are used to manufacture products like shampoos, moisturisers, soaps and liquid body wash. These ingredients – including soap noodles, surfactants, emulsifiers and other oleo chemicals – are all derivatives of the palm oil refining process. The high presence of palm kernel oil and the large number of refining steps in the supply chains for these ingredients makes traceability significantly more difficult than with many palm oil based food products. However, since the issuance of J&J’s palm oil sourcing criteria – drafted with TFT’s support – J&J and TFT have been working together to engage the largest suppliers and enhance transparency in the supply chains for these ingredients. As visibility back to palm oil mills is achieved, TFT will provide insights on potential issues related to the criteria and support J&J and their suppliers as they address potential issues together.

Finally, I was so shocked by their sheer cluelessness — J&J’s OWN page describes palm oil and its supply chain and NEVER dispels the notion that, well, palm oil actually DOES come from oil palm trees.

So I wrote back, asking for comment:

Where in the world do you guys think you did not get your Palm Oil from oil palm trees?! Please educate yourselves; that’s where it comes from and it causes deforestation. I’m boycotting your fucking product and posting all this on my anti-palm oil block. Jesus.

Care to comment knowingly and in an educated matter for my blog piece? Because you guys won’t come out looking too well when you don’t realize that palm oil doesn’t come from oil palm trees.  You know, the source of so much deforestation, death, destruction, displacement and exacerbation of global warming.

I’ll publish any comments they may give on this subject.  But talk about a disconnect!

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Pop-Secret Is Top Secret On Its Palm Oil Sources – A Short Story

IMG_2003The environmentalist was in a hurry. He was binging “House of Cards” on Netflix. But something was missing. “Popcorn!,” he blurted out, way too melodramatically for anybody’s own good , racing for his new all-electric Chevy Bolt — you know, the one that now gets about 235 clean energy (in the Bay Area) miles on one charge!

When he arrived at the supermarket, its aisles teemed with products that contained palm oil. And the popcorn aisle specifically? So much popcorn that it almost makes one guilty that starvation still exists in the world today, he considered thoughtfully. The environmentalist also knew first hand that some popcorn producers sometimes used palm oil. But he’d done his research in the past, so he’d been down this road before. Or so he thought. He reached for a box that looked safe, familiar, and beckoned with its pleasant blues and yellow hues. Ah, Pop-Secret!

Home, he charged. Back to Netflix, raising his popcorn box like a sword through the hot summer night. But the environmentalist was wrong. He was too bold. He was too brash. He thought he knew his palm oil products. But when he got back to his kitchen (his new Chevy Bolt not requiring any charge for the third day in a row now!), the environmentalist to his shock and horror caught a side-long glance at the Pop Secret’s ingredients panel as he ripped open the box to discard properly in the recycling bin. What’s that,” he quizzed?


Palm oil

Damn. Palm oil! There it was — like the ever-present sun on his all-solar-powered California home (he could dream, couldn’t he?). Palm Oil! The scourge of the Earth! The second fucking ingredient by volume in this very product!  Hell, second only to the actual goddamned popcorn itself, his righteous indignation rising. “I’ve failed,” he muttered defeatedly to himself. He purchased a product not knowing its palm oil sourcing policies. This was not like him.

So he got an idea. Like he did before. The next day he wrote to Pop-Secret, sending them his usual “death and destruction” email, begging to know from where they source their palm oil.

Quicker than expected, Pop Secret wrote back:

Thank you for contacting us.  Please accept our apologies for your experience with Pop Secret that was not to your liking. We do appreciate your feedback. Your comments are appreciated and will be useful in future work on this product.

What the hell did that mean?, the environmentalist thought to himself.  Just another boilerplate customer service response sent by a harried, overworked, underpaid customer service drone, he guessed.

So the environmentalist queried further.  From where do you get your rainforest-destroying, orangutan-killing, people-displacing/enslaving, global-warming exacerbating palm oil?, he pleaded, hoping to hear good news. Why didn’t you answer my question?, he prodded.  From where do you get your palm oil?, he poked.

The cold, calculating, clinical response from Pop-Secret said it all:

Thank you for your email. I did not answer that previously as we do not disclose our vendor information to consumers.

Really? “Seriously?!” the environmentalist belted out in the cubicle of his office (to which he drove in his new all-EV Chevy Bolt).  This isn’t a state secret, you know!  (Well, actually, it IS a trade secret, but that’s beside the point here.) The environmentalist had a pretty good track record of getting such info before from even the biggest of evil corporations (can anybody say, “Pepsi”?). Ninety-five percent of the time a company reveals it’s palm oil sourcing policy proudly, as if they’re a good actor. But he also knew that most of the time they hide behind those infernal greenwashers, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which wasn’t much more valuable than the paper upon those sustainability certificates were printed.

But not this time.  This time Pop-Secret — probably the most secretive of all popcorn manufacturers, I mean it’s right in their freakin’ name! — refused to divulge a thing.

Refused to divulge, the environmentalist ruminated. He wrote back again. Who the F are you that Pop Secret’s sourcing policy is so top secret (see what I did there?) that it cannot be divulged to us, the mere mortal consumer?

Well, hell, he thought. Well, hell, we’ll boycott! “Yes! Boycott!,” he screamed at work, his workers looking quizzically at this madman suddenly bolting above the quite din of his cubicle work environment. Seeing the weird looks his way he inspired, the environmentalist shrugged and sat down silently. His crazy environmentalist reputation at work had already preceded him. So no harm there.

The moral of the story:  stay vigilant my friends, look at labels. Write manufacturers. The fate of the world only hangs in the balance.


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180 Degrees — Its Silence Shows It Hasn’t “Come Around” (See What I Did There) On Palm Oil

IMG_1891 (2)

Another day, another trip into our palm oil-invaded workplace kitchen. This time the insidious creep of palm oil snuck-in in the form of a bagged Trojan horse called “Nutty Rice Bites”, from a company called something like 180 Degrees (I can’t make the superscript “O” easily in this text), located in Anaheim, CA, home of Disneyland, and near the neat, tidy middle-class inland Orange County bedroom community where I lived my first ten years.  (I used to say, “I grew up in the shadow of the Matterhorn.”)

Well this tale is all too familiar:  they use palm oil, their ingredients panel shows.  So I wrote to them. then I wrote to them again. Then again.  And Again. Finally I called today and had to leave a voicemail. Four separate emails (one sent through their customer inquiry page on their website) and a personal call to their HQ, and STILL NOTHING.  Note: the phone number on the back of their bag contains a typo — too many digits, maybe that tells you a little something about their quality control.

Not a good sign. Either this is a mom-and-pop shop with nobody available from their over-taxed, undera-manned assembly line factory to answer customer inquiries — or their silence on palm oil sourcing is loud and telling. Personally, I hope the former.

For now, I boycott.  And I will ask my employer — and their vendor — to cease stocking our kitchen with this product.  I’ll post their response if and when I get it (but I will not hold my breath)….

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Now THIS is How You DO It – Ben & Jerry’s Goes Palm Oil Free!

I always knew that Ben & Jerry’s had a palm oil issue.  But not all their flavors. So I looked for those flavors that didn’t contain palm oil, or palm oil codewords, knowing the company was working toward the goal of being palm oil free, and also believing in their overall social-business ethics.

Well, that time has arrived:




It’s clear that businesses can be both responsible and make money. They are not mutually exclusive.

Go Ben & Jerry’s!  F-palm oil!

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