Glenn Hurowitz sat down for his Thanksgiving meal discouraged. He’d spent 2013 flying halfway around the world to cultivate a fragile relationship with Kuok Khoon Hong, CEO of the world’s largest palm oil corporation, Wilmar. Kuok was the linchpin, Hurowitz believed — a single person who might turn the entire palm oil industry around. Wilmar buys palm oil from 80 percent of the world’s suppliers. If Kuok committed to buying only from farmers who promised not to cut down the rainforest, it would set off a chain reaction that might save hundreds of species from extinction and squelch one of the world’s biggest sources of carbon emissions. But after months of progress, the signals he’d been getting from Kuok were not encouraging.

Hurowitz emailed his co-workers at Forest Heroes, the nonprofit he’d founded, telling them to prepare for a protracted struggle. “I said, ‘Suit up, we’re going to war’,” Hurowitz told me. Then he got into bed, deflated. As he was settling in, his iPhone chimed a new text message. It was Scott Poynton, head of The Forest Trust, who had been working closely with Hurowitz and Kuok. Kuok was ready to make a commitment, the text said.

Oil Palm
Nikki Burch

Hurowitz rushed to book a flight to Singapore. That Monday, he was on the airplane.

It takes 24 hours to fly from Washington, D.C., to Singapore. By the time Hurowitz got off the plane, he saw he had another email from Kuok. Perhaps the time was not right, the palm oil exec was saying now; he wasn’t going to make any commitments unless the other palm oil companies did the same.