By Sara Santiago
Lately, palm oil has been popping up everywhere, presenting itself in a broad range of products from snack foods to beauty products to cleaning supplies. This ubiquitous oil has become increasingly utilized as a cheap and plentiful alternative to other forms of vegetable oils.
But as palm oil’s prominence rises, so does the politicalization of the fruit, from the fundamental level of its genome to the implications it poses on land use and all the way up to the international division of labor that brings its oil to market. The now industrial cultivation, harvesting, and processing of this fruit is reshaping the environmental and social landscapes in tropical zone countries, predominantly Indonesia and Malaysia, though boasts a growing global presence in China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Honduras.
Particularly in Indonesia, the palm oil industry faces harsh claims of environmental degradation and human rights abuses. Traditionally, conservation organizations have used orangutans as the face of their campaigns, citing the clearance of rainforest habitats for palm oil plantations as further endangering orangutan populations. More recently, there have been reports of palm oil plantations squeezing elephants out of their natural habitats as well as clearing the habitat of the keruing paya tree in Malaysia, driving that species into extinction.
Widespread fires throughout Indonesia’s cleared rainforest and peatland, which caused record high air pollution in Singapore and Malaysia, brought international attention to both the palm oil and the pulp and paper industries this summer. Southeast Asian governments, NGOs, and industries have sought out and allocated blame in the wake of these fires. While Greenpeace accuses the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) of not holding its corporate members responsible for fires on their concessions, First Peoples Worldwide points to the Indonesian government arresting local and indigenous farmers as “scapegoats” for the blaze.
Maybe the most ugly claims relate to labor and social concerns. In mid-July, Bloomberg Businessweek reported on nine months of research that exposed human rights abuses, including forced and child labor, with one company’s reliance on contracting low-wage workers to manually move mass amounts of palm oil, while living in controlled barracks with minimal food and water.
The palm oil industry and indigenous peoples often clash on the ground as well. This was the case recently in Borneo when villagers protested a ditch being dug by PT Bumi Sawit Kencana, a subsidiary of palm oil company Wilmar, on indigenous land. As a result, the villagers were allegedly hit by security guards, causing backlash by local residents and injury to four indigenous people.
Campaigns and the media alike directly link consumers’ preferences to slave labor and the extinction of biodiversity, placing the responsibility upon consumers to pressure the industry to uphold tougher regulations and commitments to sustainability. Already, the RSPO is collaborating with its European market to address these sustainability challenges. In groundbreaking news, the government of Indonesia has ruled to place indigenous lands back into the hands of indigenous people, moving control from the Ministry of Forest, which grants concessions to companies for plantations.
Prior to working at Future 500, Sara Santiago conducted research on indigenous peoples' reliance upon rainforests and waterways in Honduras, where she experienced firsthand the immensity of palm oil plantations. The landscape consisted of endless palm trees, strategically planted in an artificial forest, with wildlife fenced in and those indigenous who once subsisted on the land fenced out, causing clashes with the industry's security.