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article imageOp-Ed: Are U.S. retirement funds harming rainforests?

By Tim Sandle     Jul 28, 2016 in Environment
Some years ago ‘ethical investment’ was a big deal and people were keen to know where their money was being held. Things have drifted a bit since then, and one example which many are unaware of is where their retirement funds are invested.
An example of this is with key U.S. retirement funds which contain palm-oil-related holdings. The felling of these trees for oil is a leading cause of rainforest destruction. Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the mesocarp (reddish pulp) of the fruit of the oil palmsis. The oil a much used commodity and it is included in lotions, shampoo, toothpaste, cookies, breakfast bars, instant noodles and donuts.
This has been highlighted through a Friends of the Earth and As You Sow platform called “Deforestation Free Funds.” This is an online database that allows an individual to see if their retirement fund is connected with companies that undertake to tropical deforestation and land grabs. The platform contains 6,500 global mutual funds.
From the U.S. alone, an estimated $5 billion (net) is invested in palm producers. This provides 10 percent of the palm oil industry financing. Some of the funds investing in the palm oil industry include BlackRock, Vanguard, CalPERS, TIAA-CREF and Dimensional Fund Advisers.
According to the group ‘Say No To Palm Oil’, an area the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production.
The tool is not simply a means to view and scrutinize different funds, it also enables investors to send messages asking fund managers for deforestation-free investment. Key metrics include environmental damage and human rights.,
Commenting on the new tool, As You Sow representative Andrew Behar said: “Investments in palm oil are embedded in our pension funds, IRAs, and 401(k)s but most of us are not even aware of it. This web tool empowers investors to…find investment options that support a forest-friendly future.”
According to Friends of the Earth (in a report titled Are You Invested in Exploitation?”), the expansion of oil palm plantations across the tropics leads to social conflict and human rights abuses. There is also harm caused to native creatures like orangutans and Sumatran tigers. Countries expanding their plantations include Indonesia, Liberia, Nigeria, Guatemala and Malaysia.
Such campaigns can work. Last year, New York State Common Retirement Fund withdrew a shareholder proposal at ConAgra Foods Inc. after the company agreed to commit to using only sustainably sourced palm oil.
Not everyone is sympathetic. One social media user Julius Raymond (@juliusjrm) tweeted: "Tasks accomplished. Palm oil growing accordingly. Producing fresh fruits and getting handsome side income. Pre retirement plan on tract."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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