Palm oil is the world's second-most widely used edible oil after soy oil. It's used in everything from cookies and crackers to toothpaste and bread. And now it's being turned into biofuel as well.
That means in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, huge tracts of forest are being razed and replaced with palm oil plantations. Bad news for orangutans, who not only lose their homes but are treated as vermin when they come looking for food on the palm oil grounds.
Orangutans who trespass have their hands cut off, are slashed to death with machetes or are just shot in the head. "It's cheaper to kill the orangutan than put up a fence or snares," said the founder of a group trying to rescue and relocate orangutans in Borneo.
The United Nations reports that orangutans could be extinct in the wild within 10 years if their habitat continues to be wiped out at the current pace. Also on that list are the Sumatran tiger, Asian elephants and the Sumatran rhinoceros.
Demand for palm oil has been skyrocketing. Critics call it "deforestation diesel."
Meanwhile, in Columbia, roving paramilitary gangs working with palm oil conglomerates are pushing peasants off the land as tracts of farmland and tropical forest are converted into palm oil production.
Columbian president Alvaro Uribe has been spurring his country's palm oil output. Critics say that's only encouraged the big land grabs.
"The paramilitaries are not subtle when it comes to taking land," says Dominic Nutt of Christian Aid. "They simply visit a community and tell landowners, 'If you don't sell to us, we will negotiate with your widow.'"
Message received. We'll be checking the ingredient list on our next bag of vanilla wafers.