How a Kratom Ban Could Exacerbate Environmental Harm in Southeast Asia from the Palm Oil Industry
While a ban on kratom in the United States could have significantly negative effects on thousands or even millions of lives, the negative impact could be a global one. Kratom cultivation and harvesting provides many individuals in Southeast Asia with an eco-friendly way to earn the money they need to survive. But a United States kratom ban would result in a dramatic decrease in demand that would almost certainly have a major impact on the individuals who produce and harvest kratom.
Unfortunately, the negative effects could extend far beyond the social realm. Many of these kratom producers could be forced to shift to palm oil production, which is credited with causing irreversible environmental damage, particularly to the rainforests and jungles that are home to thousands of unique species, including the Sumatran orangutan.
So let’s examine how kratom is produced and how a kratom ban would cause many to shift from kratom production to the environmentally harmful palm oil farming industry.
How and Where is Kratom Grown in Southeast Asia?
Kratom (mitragyna speciosa) is a tree that’s native to Southeast Asia. Kratom is grown and harvested across Southeast Asia, including in Thailand and in the Malaysian peninsula to Borneo.
Kratom requires nitrogen-rich, fertile soil and a warm environment. It is also known as an “understory” crop, meaning it naturally thrives in the lower regions of the forest, receiving filtered sunlight that passes through the main forest canopy. For this reason, you cannot simply plant kratom in a field (in direct sunlight) and expect it to thrive.
While there are some kratom plantations (typically on farm lands that were formed by cutting down valuable rainforest), a very large portion of kratom producers actually work with the thick, ancient jungles, harvesting leaves from the mature kratom trees that grow naturally in this region. These mature kratom trees tend to have a higher quality leaf, with a denser alkaloid content. Many kratom farmers also plant new trees in the jungle, where they thrive and in several years’ time, produce a good quality kratom leaf.
So in many cases, the worldwide demand for kratom allows enterprising Asians to work with the jungles, effectively slowing the rate at which these valuable and irreplaceable rainforests are destroyed.
While we were unable to find precise figures on what portion of all kratom is exported to the United States, the team here at Kratora can confirm that Americans account for a vast majority of our customer base. It’s possible that the U.S. could account for as much as 25% or more the world’s kratom consumers. This means that hundreds or even thousands of kratom producers and harvesters could be put out of business if kratom is outlawed in the U.S. And it’s certain that many land owners would turn to a far more ecologically harmful type of agricultural venture: palm oil plantations.
How is Kratom Demand Linked to Palm Oil Plantations?
Farmers in Southeast Asia are rather limited in their options by way of crops. If kratom demand is reduced, many kratom producers would be forced to explore other options and it’s certain that many would opt to convert their lands into palm oil plantations.
While kratom trees can thrive in the dense rainforest, it’s just not possible to farm oil palm trees in this way. As a result, thousands upon thousands of acres of ancient rainforest could be destroyed to make way for these palm oil plantations, which are on par with the logging industry in terms of the negative impact on the environment.
Southeast Asia’s ancient rainforests are home to many unique species that are found nowhere else on the planet, such as the Sumatran orangutan. A reduction in kratom demand could spell death for millions of creatures, including endangered species, including the Sumatran orangutan, the Sumatran tiger, Asian elephants, the probocis monkey and the sun bear.
Deforestation and loss of critical habitats isn’t the only ill effect from the “forest conversion” process that is required to establish palm oil plantations.
To make matters worse, oil palm trees – like all palm trees – have a relatively small, shallow root system. Without the deep, widespread root systems that exist in a healthy rainforest environment, there is little to hold the soil in place. This can result in serious, widespread soil erosion.
The dense plant life in the rainforest also results in a lot of water consumption, with some tree species soaking up thousands of gallons per day. Without these plants and trees in place to drink up water from the soil, flooding becomes a greater problem. (And when you combine flooding with loose soil, the erosion problem is exacerbated ten-fold.)
During the dry season, there is an increased risk of fire in regions where palm oil plantations are located. Rainforests tend to remain damp year-round, in large part due to the thick layer of organic and peat material that covers the forest floor, serving like a giant sponge. The thick forest canopy also prevents the direct sunlight from hitting the forest floor, limiting evaporation. This means these jungle regions are naturally protected from fires. But in a palm oil plantation, the rainforest is clearcut and the peatlands are drained. Direct sunlight dries the earth, creating dry conditions that are ripe for fire.
What’s more, the oil palm tree is not native to Southeast Asia. It’s actually native to Western Africa, yet an estimated 85% of the world’s palm oil is sourced from Malaysia and Indonesia. Non-native plants hold the potential to cause new and unforeseen forms of environmental damage, harming native species in a number of ways.
The situation in Southeast Asia is already critical. According to facts and figures provided by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it’s estimated that 300 football fields worth of ancient rainforest is cut down every hour to make way for new palm oil plantations. The WWF estimates that if this rate continues, we could lose endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger in as little as three years and the Sumatran orangutan in as little as five or ten years. Over 90% of the Sumatran orangutan’s habitat has been destroyed in the past 20 years alone. The rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo are home to approximately 300,000 animal species and countless more plant species.
While the forest timber is sold and utilized worldwide, all of the other plant matter is dried and burned, making this region the third worst greenhouse gas emitter worldwide.
As if the environmental impact wasn’t bad enough, the palm oil industry has also been linked to egregious human rights violations, including child labor in Malaysia and Indonesia. Many children are forced to pull weeds for 12 hours a day or longer, while others carry heavy, thorn-ridden bunches of palm fruit from the fields to the processing area.
In short, the impact of banning kratom in the U.S. could have a profoundly negative impact on thousands of Americans, but beyond this, we could see ever-worsening conditions in Southeast Asia where many kratom producers may be forced to join the palm oil industry.