Palm Oil; the invisible truth

Although we may not be aware of it, most of us consume or use palm oil on a daily basis. Products which contain palm oil range from the average Kit Kat to loaves of hearty wholemeal bread. However, the presence of palm oil is often disguised and labelled simply as “vegetable oil” or in some cases, not referred to at all. But what have these manufacturers got to hide?

A shocking image from the 2010 Greenpeace campaign to highlight the use of Palm Oil in Nestle products.

Greenpeace (2007) projects the global demand for palm oil will double by 2030. This expansion is fuelled by the ever increasing threat of global warming on our planet. First World leaders are constantly searching for renewable and clean energy solutions which will require minimum adaptation to our behaviour. Palm oil is often heralded as the perfect substitute for crude oil– a renewable energy source which allows us to continue to avoid public transport and linger safely within our autonomous vehicles. The EU supports this thinking and has set the ambitious target for palm biofuels to constitute 10% of transport fuels by 2020 (Greenpeace, 2007).

On the surface then, palm oil appears to be the saviour of our time; a handy global warming fix and a cheap ingredient in our tastiest snacks. However, all is not what it seems.

An palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Rows of palm crop inhabit the space that was once dense rainforest

In 2007, UNEP identified palm oil as the “leading cause of rainforest destruction”(Danielsen, 2009) and revealed that 28 million hectares of Indonesian rainforest has been destroyed since 1990 for plantations (Greenpeace, 2007). When dense rainforests, typically in Malaysia and Indonesia, are substituted for miles of monolithic palm oil crop, approximately 90% of biodiversity in the area is lost (WWF, 2012). This proves detrimental for iconic species such as the Sumatran Orangutan and Tiger who face extinction due to the expansion of the palm oil industry. Here, the age-old debate of environmental protection vs. economic expansion rears its environmentally unjust head. Although Malaysia and Indonesia are developing countries with abundant natural resources, do they really have the right to exploit these endemic ecosystems and species for economic gain?

An orangutan walks the deforested ground it used to inhabit

A road blockade protest by Penan people against loggers and palm oil companies entering their land

The palm oil industry also generates severe social injustices. In Sarawak, Borneo, the Penan people inhabit the forested areas which are destroyed for plantations. Traditionally, the tribe follow the ‘molong’ way of life which emphasises the necessity of never taking more than you need (Brosius, 1997). These nomadic hunter gatherers live extremely sustainable lives and rely completely on the natural resources they collect from the forest. However, natives maintain palm oil companies have entered and destroyed their lands “illegally, without consent” (Survival International, 2011). The severity of their injustice is highlighted through the 100 land rights cases Indigenous people have filed which have subsequently been ignored. Particularly when given the full backing of the government, traditional lands can be easily acquired due to a lack of formal ownership and title. Environmental activist Bruno Manser recognised this injustice and whilst living with the Penan people and communicated their plight to the government. Unfortunately his work caused him to be labelled an “enemy of the state” and has suspiciously been declared missing in the forest for 5 years. From the 1990s to the present day, Malaysian indigenous groups have continued protesting against this gross violation of their native customary rights through road blockades and grass-roots movements.

One of many “palm oil action groups” found on Facebook. Members update palm-oil-free product lists and share real time information

So how can geographers help to combat this global injustice? As an interdisciplinary and globally relevant discipline, Geography can contribute greatly to the palm oil debate. There are two ways in which geographers can do so, the first is through an ability to research and expose the social and environmental costs palm oil. From this exposure, geographers have the capability to propose and instigate viable and sustainable solutions for change such as alternative crops, increased biodiversity protection and strengthened indigenous land rights. One modern way in which geographer’s can generate exposure of the palm oil issue and showcase their research is through the social media many of us log onto every day. Sites such as Twitter and Facebook are becoming increasingly powerful tools with which to generate social movements through the exposure of traditionally geographical issues to the public in an accessible and motivating format. Social media is therefore stimulating a connection between geographical research and the public which can be utilised to raise awareness, challenge existing policy and shape future schemes within the palm oil debate.

Whatever the method of exposure, the social and environmental injustices of palm oil cannot be allowed to remain invisible.

Sources:

Brosius, Peter (1997) ‘Prior Transcripts, Divergent Paths: Resistance and Acquiesence to Logging in Sarawak, East Malaysia’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol 39, No 3

Danielsen, F. Beukema, H. Burgess, N. Parish, F. and Brühl, C. (2009) ‘Biofuel Plantations on Forested Lands: Double Jeopardy for Biodiversity and Climate’, Conservation Biology, 23 (2), pp.348-358.

Greenpeace (2012) Image 1 – Kit-Kat Orangutan, Avaliable: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/climate-change/kitkat/ Last Accessed 07/05/2012

Greenpeace. (2007) How the Palm Oil industry is Cooking the Climate, London: Greenpeace.

Gerber, J. (2010) ‘An overview of resistance against industrial tree plantations in the global South’,  Economic & Political Weekly, 41, pp.30-34.

Hickman, M. (2009) The guilty secrets of palm oil: Are you unwittingly contributing to the devestation of the rainforests?, The Independent, Avaliable: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/the-guilty-secrets-of-palm-oil-are-you-unwittingly-contributing-to-the-devastation-of-the-rain-forests-1676218.html Last Accessed 07/05/2012

Lee, P. (2009) Image 3 – Penan protests, Avaliable: http://www.foei.org/en/what-we-do/forests-and-biodiversity/latest-news/indigenous-peoples-fight-to-repel-loggers Last Accessed 07/05/2012

Lim, S. and Teong, L. (2010) ‘Recent trends, opportunities and challenges of biodiesel in Malaysia: An overview’, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 14 (3), pp.38–954.

Palm Oil Action Group (2012) Image 4 – Facebook profile of Palm Oil Action Group, Avaliabe: http://www.facebook.com/#!/palmoilaction Last Accessed 07/05/2012

Survival International (2010) Borneo tribes under threat from massive palm oil expansion, Avaliable: http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/6787%2020/dec/2010 Last Accessed 07/05/2012

Survival International (2011) Penan hunter-gatherers to be dumped in vast oil palm plantation, Avaliable: http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/7370 Last Accessed 07/05/2012

The Environmental Investigation Agency (2012) Image 2 – Orangutan on deforested land, Avaliable: http://www.habitatadvocate.com.au/?tag=palm-oil-plantations Last Accessed 07/05/2012

Wicke, B. Sikkema, R. Dornburg, V. and Faaij, A. (2011) ‘Exploring Land Use Changes and he Role of Palm Oil Production in Indonesia and Malaysia’, Land Use Policy, 28 (1), pp.193-206.

Vaswani, K. (2011) Palm oil threat to Indonesia’s orangutans, BBC News, Avaliabe: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16336582, Last Accessed 07/05/2012

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Invasion of the Pylons

There are currently around 88,000 electricity pylons in the UK. However, these pylons are about to be joined by thousands more as our current national grid system is updated. As our old power network approaches obsolescence, the proposed spread of pylons across Britain’s iconic rural landscapes has met with much resistance.

Westmill windfarm is situated several miles away from the nearest major towns and villages

So, why are these further intrusions on our crowded landscape necessary? To meet EU Sustainability targets, one quarter of our existing power stations must be closed down and replaced with greener renewable solutions. One of the most favoured yet most contested alternatives is wind energy. Clean, cheap and renewable, wind energy is often heralded as the renewable saviour of time yet it requires a specific set of preconditions which are often disputed. Unlike non-renewable energy sources, wind farms and other environmentally friendly alternatives are located in remote areas to maximise energy efficiency and production. Unfortunately, these remote rural locations are often extremely far away from residential and business districts. An increase in renewable energy plants has therefore amplified the necessity for additional electricity pylons to connect the remote renewable energy supply to demand.

Since the National Grid’s propositions began in 2010, numerous pressure groups from Mid-Wales to Suffolk have begun to campaign against the proposed “invasion” (Heap, 2011) of pylons in their rural communities. Following the innovative new design of Icelandic pylons, the National Grid launched a 2011 national competition to redesign the structures in the hope of making them more palatable to the eye.

Innovative Islandic Pylon Design - a unique feature or a dominating eyesore?

We must consider however if such eye catching structures are the right approach to take? It could be argued that these impressive pieces of engineering are more suited to the National Gallery than rural Suffolk. Many suggest therefore that this proposed structural incursion will not only become a visual eyesore for local residents but also have the potential to disrupt local businesses which rely on the ‘natural’ state of the landscape to attract tourism to the area. On BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth, Tom Heap interviewed a local resident who claimed that although National Grid has held two public consultations, the anxieties expressed by local communities are “still largely being ignored” (Heap, 2011). The resistance to pylons has occurred since the birth of the national electricity supply in 1927 whereby a group of local residents from Somerset articulately compared them to “nude giant girls that have no secrets” (CPRW, 2012) in a letter to the Times. Here local residents appear to be experiencing an injustice as their views and opinions are side-lined in favour of meeting EU targets.

Electricity Pylons in the Scottish Highlands to become a much more regular sight

Some may claim however that such opposition and intense feeling of injustice stems from the “not in my back yard” theory whereby if the issue was transferred elsewhere, it would no longer cause a dispute. However, if we analyse this situation through a geographical lens, the scheme becomes much more than a simple disruption of local scenery. As geographers it is imperative to recognise that not only does the intrusion of a pylon disrupt the visual aesthetics of an area, it also has the potential to modify our entire social construction of the rural idyll and rural landscape. British identity is synonymous with the rolling hills, green pastures and quaint open spaces yet the proposed inclusion of huge concrete structures upon this idyllic scenery has the potential to destroy the entire notion of the British rural idyll. From this approach then, we could see the proposed scheme as not only an injustice for local residents but also for British citizens.

This policy has the potential to completely reshape the aesthetics and symbolism of our rural countryside and the face of Britain for generations to come. Heap therefore calls for this scheme to become part of a “national debate”(2011)  which we must, as both geographers and UK citizens, continue to take a vested interest in.

BBC Look East report on Suffolk protests against pylons (begins 2 minutes into clip)

Sources:

Anon (2011) Mid and west Wales power protesters at Senedd, BBC News, Avaliable: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-13498707 Last Accessed 07/03/2012

Benson, M. (2010), Landscape, imagination and experience: processes of emplacement among the British in rural France. The Sociological Review, 58: 61–77

Bunkse, E. (2007) ‘Feeling is believing, or landscape as a way of being in the world’, Geografiska Annaler, Vol. 89, pp.219-231

 

Geere, D. (2010) Human pylons carry electricity across Iceland, Avaliable: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2010-08/16/human-pylons, Last Accessed 07/03/2012

Heep, T. (2011) March of the Pylons, ‘Costing the Earth’, BBC Radio 4, Last Broadcast 20/10/2011

Holland, D. (2012) Stour Valley Underground, Avaliable: http://www.stourvalleyunderground.org.uk/, Last Accessed  07/03/2012

National Grid. (2012) Major Infrastructure Projects, Avaliable: http://www.nationalgrid.com/uk/Electricity/MajorProjects/ Last Accessed 07/03/2012

Wylie, J. (2005) A Single Day’s Walking: Narrating itself and lanscape on the Southwest Coast Path, Transactions of the Instititue British Geographers, 30 (2), pp.234-247

Photograph Sources:

  1.  Anon. (2012) Wind Farm, Suffolk. Avaliabe:http://www.windjobsuk.com/wind-farm-jobs.cms.asp Last Accessed: 07/03/2012
  2. Anon (2012) Iclandic Wind Farms, Avaliabel: http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/09/29/when-pressed-abbott-discovers-he-has-a-pair/ Last Accessed: 07/03/2012
  3. Anon (2012) Wind Farms Scottish Highlands, Avaliable: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/jan/31/burying-electric-pylons-cheaper-government Last Accessed 07/03/2012

The Thames Tunnel – a practical environmental solution or an unjust golden legacy?

London is internationally recognised as a Global City, renowned for its economic power and political influence. However, after a short boat ride down the river Thames, the sophisticated prowess of the city is often all but lost. You may in fact be excused from believing you have been transported to Victorian England as the potent stench of raw sewerage spills into your nostrils and discarded toilet paper meanders beneath your feet. Surely this foul scene is inappropriate for the 21st Century capital of England?

One of the 37 vales discharging raw sewerage into the Thames

39million tonnes of raw sewerage overflows into the Thames each year proving detrimental not only to the river’s aesthetics but also to its chemistry. When more than 2mm of rain falls on London, the sewerage system begins to overflow into the Thames through 37 emergency release valves. Originally built by Joseph Bazalgette during the Victorian era, London’s sewerage system was intended to cater for a population of 4millon rather than today’s 7-8 million. Unfortunately, although the city’s population has undergone a drastic transformation, the sewerage system at its heart has remained largely unaltered. Therefore, although the Thames has the potential to be a successful fish breeding ground, each sewerage overflow incident kills thousands of fish due to toxic pollution and a subsequent depletion of oxygen in the river.

However, Thames Water has constructed a large-scale hard engineering solution to tackle the sewerage overflow spilling into the Thames each week. The ‘London Tideway Improvements Programme’ incorporates three phases:

  1. Construction of the ‘Lee Tunnel’, capturing 16million tonnes of sewerage each year
  2. An increase in efficiency and capacity of numerous sewerage treatment works
  3. A controversial construction of the 20mile ‘Thames Tunnel ’ to tackle the 34 most polluting overflows creating a “cleaner and healthier river Thames” (Roberts, 2012).

The proposed route of the Thames Tunnel

With numerous environmental groups backing the scheme we may assume this is the perfect project- surely everyone wants a sparkling Thames? However, the second phase of public consultations which ended last week debated whether the tunnel is worth the £4.1 billion and years of disruption for those living near the proposed construction sites. During BBC Radio 4’s‘Costing the Earth’, Professor Roberts interviews local residents who run the “Save Your Riverside” campaign and claim a 7 year-long construction site outside their homes prevents them from selling their houses, reduces their value and poses a threat to local businesses. This decrease in the local economy is combined with a proposed increase of £70-80 water bills to ironically fund the tunnel construction which has the potential to cause so much upset.

Riverside Primary School present their petition

These economic issues are coupled with numerous social injustices such as 24 hour incessant noise pollution, some of which falls feet in front of homes. One resident raises concern for the local primary school asking “what will this do to our local children?” (Roberts, 2012) as the site demands 90lorries per day travelling in front of the building. As a result, Riverside Primary School presented a petition against the use of land near their building as a drive site for the Tunnel,receiving 2,000 signatures on the grounds of safety and disruption to learning.

But is this 20 mile super sewer the only viable solution? Many believe there are more environmentally friendly and socially just solutions that could be implemented but have been dismissed by the government. Does a 20 mile concrete tunnel not suggest a worryingly 19th Century approach to environmental issues whereby the government’s love for a big and beautiful legacy surpasses the possibility of a more eco-friendly solution? Such a large-scale solution is comparable to the Three Gorges Dam project, China whereby the government masks a human induced environmental issue with a large-scale hard engineering project. Here, the dam is not only an environmental solution, but a legacy in its own right by acting as a continuous symbolism of presidential power and influence regardless of its social impact.

If there is one thing all players can agree on, everyone wants a cleaner Thames. However, we must consider whether the proposed vast social and economic costs of the tunnel really worth it. It is imperative therefore to contemplate not only alternative, eco-friendly solutions for the Thames, but also why these possible solutions being ignored.

Sources:

BBC News,(2011)Thames Tunnel Plan ‘Should be Reviewed’, Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-13711657 Last Accessed 28/02/2012

Roberts, A. (2012) The Thames Tunnel, ‘Costing the Earth’, BBC Radio 4, Last Broadcast Wed 22 Feb 2012 21:00

Tilt, B. et al. (2008) Social impacts of large dam projects: A comparison of international case studies and implications for best practice, Journal of Environmental Management

Thames Water (2012), Thames Tunnel Project, Available At: http://www.thamestunnelconsultation.co.uk/ Last Accessed 28/02/2012

Photograph Sources:

Sewerage Vale: http://www.thameswater.co.uk/cps/rde/xchg/prod/hs.xsl/10092.htm Last Accessed 28/02/2012

Thames Tunnel Route: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-15479709 Last Accessed 28/02/2012

Riverside Primary School Petition: http://www.thamestunnelconsultation.co.uk/2012/02/09/riverside-pupils-present-petition/ Last Accessed 28/02/2012

Mining Injustice in Panama

Ngobe People Protesting- Cortesia de Patria Grande

Half the gold mined in the world from 1995-2015 is likely to come from indigenous lands (Ukiri, 2011). Each time this occurs the potential is generated for an often violent clash between local indigenous groups and government officials. This week, the Latin American country of Panama epitomised such a confrontation whereby 3 people were killed as the Nagabe-Bugle tribe formed a human blockade across the Pan-America highway to protest against proposed mining developments on their land.

The Nagabe-Bugle tribe, one of the largest in Panama, sits on top of the Cerro Colorado copper deposit.  As one of the richest mineral deposits in Latin America, the Cerro Colorado has the potential to provide 270,000 tonnes of copper for extraction over a 30 year period. Although there was once a law within Panama which protected indigenous land rights and sovereignty within the country, last week this law was abandoned by the Panama government in order to allow foreign mining companies to enter the area without breaching legislation. The site has already been opened for tender. However, the recently elected female spokesperson for the Nagabe-Bugle tribe, Silvia Carrera, argues that mining will not only obliterate pristine rainforest (second largest only to the Amazon) but also the livelihoods of thousands of indigenous tribes people.

Carrera professes that the invasion of foreign mining companies generates great injustice for the Nagbe-Bugle people who appear to be “ignored” and at times “used to entertain the government”. Carrera suggests that the indigenous people have much more than a sustenance connection to their land. The tribes people profess a spiritual connection to the earth whereby it is seen not only as a physical territory on which they live, but as a “mother” figure from which they are given life. Such a deep-rooted duty to care and protect the environment in its own right seems to fall deaf on the seemingly ignorant ears of the Panama government. Such a lack of recognition of the voices and opinions of the indigenous people sparked yesterday’s road blockade along Panama’s busiest highway.

Carrera maintains that the indigenous protest is wholly peaceful and continues to be the only medium they have to defend themselves and their lands, stating “we don’t have anything, we only have words”.  But what use are these words when they are not listened to? Indigenous reports state that their peaceful protest was met with a riot response from the police and government, utilising tear gas and rubber bullets on all protestors including women and children which resulted in three indigenous deaths. Even if the indigenous protest was not ultimately as peaceful as spokesmen imply, this reaction simply cannot be considered to  be “just” response by the police or the government to the desperate plea from the people for a recognition of their rights over the land.

Unfortunately, this unjust scenario is not specific to Panama.  An interesting recent journal by Urkidi reiterates an equivalent process occurring in Guatemala. Here “95% of mining licences granted in 2004 were in indigenous provinces” (Urkidi, 2004), this demonstrates great injustice for indigenous people who have their homeland forcibly removed from them and their spiritual connection undermined. We can conclude therefore that the development of these communitarian struggles are not simply motivated by environmental injustice, but more prominently factors of social justice, land rights, ethnicity and human rights of the indigenous people. Indigenous communities world wide must be acknowledged to posses agency- the agency to make their own decisions and have their views not only heard, but taken into consideration and positively acted upon.

Sources:

Black, R.  (2012), Panama clashes: Indigenous groups angry over mining law. Available:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12513084 Last accessed 21.2.2012

Cook, C. (2012), Indigenous Mining Protestors Killed in Panama. Available: http://www.pacificfreepress.com/news/1/10893-indigenous-mining-protesters-killed-in-panama.html Last accessed 21.2.2012

URKIDI, L. (2011), The Defence of Community in the Anti-Mining Movement of Guatemala. Journal of Agrarian Change, 11: 556–580.

Image Source:

Ngobe People Protesting- Cortesia de Patria Grande http://www.internationalrivers.org/blog/monti-aguirre/2012-2-7/stop-violence-against-ngobe-indigenous-peoples Last accessed 21.2.2012