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.


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: 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: Last Accessed 07/05/2012

Lee, P. (2009) Image 3 – Penan protests, Avaliable: 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:!/palmoilaction Last Accessed 07/05/2012

Survival International (2010) Borneo tribes under threat from massive palm oil expansion, Avaliable: Last Accessed 07/05/2012

Survival International (2011) Penan hunter-gatherers to be dumped in vast oil palm plantation, Avaliable: Last Accessed 07/05/2012

The Environmental Investigation Agency (2012) Image 2 – Orangutan on deforested land, Avaliable: 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:, Last Accessed 07/05/2012


Solar Panels in the Mojave Desert – America’s Contested Green Future

US President, Barack Obama speaks at the State of the Union Address, 2012.

In his final State of the Union address before the US elections, Barack Obama stated that the United States needed “an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy – a strategy that’s cleaner, cheaper and full of new jobs,” (Goldenberg, 2012). The target of the declaration was undoubtedly the Republican politicians who are determined to push Keystone XL through Congress, but it also bought attention back to the USA’s clean energy aims.

The Sierra Sun Tower, California

The United States Department of Energy had approved 18 solar farm projects at the end of 2011, indicating that they are working towards a greener stance on energy; as the world’s second largest consumer of energy (Swartz & Oster, 2010) the US would be wise to invest in renewable sources.

Many of the planned solar panel farms are set to be constructed in the vast Mojave Desert; however two particular projects (the $1 billion Genisis Solar Project and the Solar Millenium Project) have been met by protests from environmental activists and Native American Groups. Their concern is that these enormous wind farms will damage the desert environment; Alfredo Figueroa, a Chemeheuvi Indian has criticised the projects saying they will affect important cultural features such as ancient rock art and sacred heritage sites (Helmore, 2012).

Environmentally there are worries that billions of water will be taken from the desert habitat (Glennon, 2009) and that the solar farms will not be efficient in water conservation. Infrastructure associated with energy development is likely to cause changes to desert quality (Allen & McHughen, 2011). The life span of solar farms has also been under fire. Additionally there are over 2,500 species of plants and animals which call the Mojave home, and which will be affected by the construction of the huge solar farms. So for the indigenous groups and the desert ecosystems that will be affected, the solar farms do not do much in the way of justice.

The Mojave Desert Tortoise will be one of threatened species.

However, the solar farms have many positive facets. They will increase employment and economic investment in the area and provide clean energy to over 3 million homes. BrightSource, operator of Ivanpah (a $2.2 Google partnered project which will be the largest solar plant on earth after its construction) further argue that the farms will only take up 0.26% of the entire Mojave Desert (Helmore, 2012). They are also dedicated to ensuring the protection of desert species and meeting state regulations. Campbell et al. (2009) suggest that the solar farms are the best option for California’s green aims. The Mojave Desert has excellent conditions for solar farms, and Glennon (2009) argues that ‘the area seems perfect of solar power; it’s hot and flat and vast’.

Computer image of the proposed Ivanpah Solar Farm. The farm will supply energy to 140,000 homes, provide 1,400 construction jobs, and save 13.5 million tonnes of CO2 in its lifetime.

If we consider solar farms in the long term they look set to increase the US’s use of sustainable and clean energy. The determination to implement renewable energy schemes looks like a gesture towards a greener future and to environmental justice, and after all, isn’t that the aim of renewable energy?


Allen, Michael F.; & McHughen, Alan. (2011). Solar Power in the Desert: Are the current large-scale solar developments really improving California’s environment?. UC Riverside: Center for Conservation Biology. Retrieved from:

Campbell, H et al. . (2009). Here Comes the Sun: Solar Thermal in the Mojave Desert—Carbon Reduction or Loss of Sequestration?. Available: Last accessed 13th March 2012.

Glennon, R. (2009). Is Solar Power Dead in the Water?. Available: Last accessed 13th March 2012.

Goldenberg, S. (2012). State of the Union 2012: Barack Obama’s environment agenda in review. Available: Last accessed 13th March 2012.

Helmore, E (2012) Solar power firms in Mojave desert feel glare of tribes and environmentalists. Available: Last accessed 12th March 2012.

Swartz, S and Oster, S. (2010). China Tops U.S. in Energy Use. Available: Last accessed 13th March 2012.

Picture Sources


Developing countries are fuelling the rich.

No forests, no crops and no communities. Ethiopia's new landscape dominating of sugar canes.

You would have thought that land grabbing would have stopped due to the implications of the Hyland Clearances in the 18th and 19th century, but evidently not. Today land grabs are happening at a larger extent impacting the most vulnerable communities in the developing world (Zoomers 2010). Many land grabs happen to create biofuel plantations. We all presumed biofuel was aimed to reduce global warming, whereas actually it is increasing carbon dioxide levels due to deforestation.

With issues such as famine, poverty and droughts common in the developing world, land grabbing is another unwanted problem.  The Guardian stated that over 66% of land grabs in Africa were intended for biofuel, so far causing a loss of 277 million hectors. In some cases land areas the size of Britain are given to investors (Oxfam 2011). Imagine, if the UK was used for biofuel plantations where would we all be living? Replacing land once used for crops with palm oil trees has increased starvation and resulted in communities being dispersed. The developing world is suffering to fuel the rich’s greed.

Ethiopia receives approximately 700,000 tonnes of food and 1.8 billion of aid each year from the developed world.  If Ethiopia stopped selling land for as cheap as £150 for 1000mi² it could reduce reliance on aid and prevent starvation. The Gambella region in Ethiopia has attracted over 896 worldwide investors in the last nine years (Vermeulen and Cotula 2010). In Gambella, there is no consultation between the government, investors and local people. Farmers have been killed, jailed and tortured trying to protect their land and community. Due to the government’s dominance many villagers are too afraid to protest for their human rights. This raises questions as to whether biofuel plantations are a step forward in the world’s development.

Forest is being burnt in the Karuturi compound in order to create biofuel plantations.

Karuturi PLC brought a piece of land in Ethiopia the size of Wales for biofuel plantations. With the forced eviction of thousands of African tribes and exploitation of workers the company is now under the eye of the Human Rights Watch. Karuturi’s promise of building schools and homes are nowhere to be seen, it appears that their focus is only on profit. In 2010, flooding occurred in Ethiopia and Karuturi lost 12,000 hectors of planted crops, could this resemble some natural justice for the displaced communities perhaps?

With Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture agreeing with biofuel plantations stating they were key for development, like foreign investors he is prioritising economic growth over the people’s welfare and the environment (Zoomers 2010). Many impoverished communities lack justice and are rarely compensated for loss of land and food, explicitly demonstrating how investors are denying people their human rights (Vermeulen and Cotula 2010).

As a geographer I believe that this neoliberal policy was aimed to create sustainable development. Biofuel plantations could be successful if locals are properly compensated and allowed a say in the country’s development programme. Furthermore, companies could create oil palms on degradable land instead of destroying existing farmland, communities and people’s rights.


Guardian 2012, Global land grab could trigger conflict, report says. Last Accessed 08/03/2012

Guardian 2009,The cost of the biofuel boom on Indonesia’s forests. Last Accessed 08/03/2012

Vermeulen and Cotula, 2010, Over the heads of local people: consultation, consent, and recompense in large-scale land deals for biofuels projects in Africa, Journal of Peasant Studies, 37 (4), 899-916

Zoomers 2010, Globalisation and the foreignisation of space: seven processes driving the current global land grab, Journal of Peasant Studies, 37 (2), 429-447

Picture 1: Alfredo Bini. Last Accessed 08/03/2012

Picture 2: Alfredo Bini. Last Accessed 08/03/2012

Video: John Vidal, 2011, Last Accessed 08/03/2012

The social cost of commodifying nature

The commodification of ecosystem services is a much contested and debated area within Geography. Commodification in its simplest form means to attach monetary value to something; this blog will examine the effects this can have. In eastern Africa value is attached to vast amounts of woodland as this woodland provides a means for carbon sequestration, a very valuable, regulating ecosystem service. Places of intense carbon sequestration also known as carbon sinks absorb carbon dioxide and have become a major component in the ever expanding emissions trading market. Emissions’ trading allows carbon credits to be bought and sold, it is a form of carbon offsetting which allows countries to offset their own emissions or sell the credits they create to other countries.

The New Forests Company (NFC) is currently planting and harvesting trees across Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Rwanda, and hopes to attract revenue from carbon credits created, but this scheme is having negative social and economic impacts on the local population. Since the NFC was founded in 2004 it has acquired 90,000 hectares of land but claims made in a recent Oxfam report carried out in 2011 state that much of this land belonged to the indigenous communities (Lang, 2011).

Locals living in a hut after being evicted from their homes and land

Oxfam made serious allegations that as many as 20,000 people in Uganda were dispossessed or lost entitlements to their land during the proceedings. Evictions were allegedly very violent and involved the destruction of houses and crops (Granger and Geary, 2011). On top of this locals claim that they were not given enough prior notice and that objections were not taken into consideration, those who did lose their land and or property were not fully compensated or offered substitute land holdings, many were forced to reside in temporary shacks.

Many disputes have erupted over entitlements to the land. Some indigenous folk argue that they were given deeds for their land by the Idi Amin government in return for their or their relatives’ service in the Second World War; other locals say that the land was rightfully theirs as they purchased it legally from the government (Vidal, 2011). The NFC excuses itself from the debate saying that it was the Ugandan government who were responsible for the evictions and it was their responsibility to resolve conflicts over land, both the NFC and Ugandan government say cases that did arise were disregarded on account of their illegitimacy, but lawyers say many cases are still active and will most likely never be resolved.

The injustice present here is undeniable. The commodification of carbon sinks present in Uganda and East Africa as a whole have jeopardised indigenous peoples way of life, and in too many cases taken away their way of life completely. As a geographer I appreciate the need to protect the environment and investing in carbon sinks and carbon sequestration projects is admirable and effective, however it should not come at such a high social cost.


Grainger, M. and Geary, K. 2011. The New Forests Company and its Uganda plantations. Oxfam international.

Lang, C., 2011. Ugandan farmers kicked off their land for New Forests Company’s carbon project forest project. Available from: [Accessed 3 March 2012].

Vidal, J., 2011. Ugandan Farmer: ‘my land gave me everything. Now I’m one of the poorest’. Available from: [Accessed 3 March 2012].


Picture references:

Rawles, S., 2011. Ugandan Farmer: ‘my land gave me everything. Now I’m one of the poorest’ [photograph]. Oxfam. Available from: uganda-farmer-land-gave-me-everything?INTCMP=SRCH [Accessed 2 March 2012]


Judicial Systems and Environmental Justice

You might be on one side of the world, but what you do is affecting somebody else in another continent very far away. But you would rather protect your profits than nature. There might be, there will be, millions of people who are affected, and may even die because of those actions. Is this not genocide?”

– Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s UN Ambassador, 2010

The location of the Andes Mountain range and Mount Illimani

The snow capped mountains of the Andes are vital to the livelihoods of many communities. However, due to rising temperatures, the snow is retreating and locals are struggling to cope without the water supply. It is important to be aware of the situation in the Andes but it is even more important to recognise what actions can be taken.

Andres Schipani writing for the BBC noted the profound sense of anxiety amongst locals in the small village of Khapi, situated below Mount Illimani in Bolivia. In recent years, half of the community has left due to the severe lack of water which keeps their animals alive and crops flourishing (Schipani, 2010). Over the past 10 years, changing weather patterns have made the area three times hotter which rapidly melted the snow and the streams became torrents. Now, the streams are nothing more than a trickle, the crops are dry and the animals are dead.

The villagers argue that those who caused the snow to retreat should be brought before an international court (Schipani, 2010). An International Court for Environmental Justice would provide an authority that will have flexibility and impartiality, that rarely a state possesses, to oversee environmental activities (Raghavan, 1997).

The snow capped Mount Illimani is a vital source of water for locals in Bolivia.

In Bolivia, it would allow the Khapi community to seek compensation from the global community for environmental damage impacting their community thousands of kilometres away (Schipani, 2010).

Leading the campaign is Alvio Aruquipa, one of the community leaders who argued that any compensation received would be used to build dykes to store the water and improve their supply. Strongly supporting the campaign for an environmental judiciary system is the Bolivian Government who perceive the COP15 climate change talks in Copenhagen in 2009 to be a failure and called for an alternative civil-society conference (Schipani, 2010).

The Bolivian city of Cochabamba hosted this conference in April 2010 which brought together indigenous groups, NGOs, scientists, activists and government delegations to talk about how justice can be achieved through an international court (Schipani, 2010).

Bolivia’s Conference on Climate Change focused on the plight of the world’s poorest people

Bolivia’s ambassador to the UN, Pablo Solon, stated

“What we want is justice. We are speaking about how to sanction actions that seriously affect the environment and have consequences for populations and nations that may even disappear. The environmental situation we are facing deserves a new judicial system”

Creating a judicial body for the environment would likely be opposed by nations who resent parting with their sovereignty, but the need for such a judicial organ is ‘imperative, especially if any meaningful progress is to be made in the field of international environmental law’ and justice (Raghavan, 1997)

Indigenous people attending the conference hoped that an International Court of Environmental Justice would be introduced.

The people of Khapi would not be the only people to lodge a case if an international court was established, as there are hundreds of other communities across the globe suffering from the environmentally damaging actions of others. Most environmental disputes have consequences that will affect the planet for centuries to come, and therefore an international court would have the ability to rule that the interests of future generations are paramount.

As Raghavan (1997) states

“No single generation can guide the destiny of our universe, and the international environmental court will be the current generation’s contribution in making the lives of those yet to inhabit planet earth a little more secure”

Ultimately, as geographers, we need to continuously explore new ways in which we can deal with environmental injustice, whether this is through a legal route or not. Being aware of global injustice stories is crucial, but not enough, we always need to take it further and think of solutions if we are serious about justice.


Raghavan, V. (1997). Is it time for an International Court of Environmental Justice?. Available: accessed 3rd March 2012.

Schipani, A. (2010). Bolivian villagers want compensation as glaciers melt. Available: Last accessed 3rd March 2012

Image Sources





China’s Industrial pollution: Is it just to label them environmental deviants?

Chinese industrial pollution

China’s industrialisation has been exceptionally fast, exceptionally productive (for the country’s financial centres), and exceptionally damaging in its contribution to global environmental issue. In this blog I’ll attempt to gauge whether China’s massive pollution is doing an injustice to all … Continue reading

Keystone XL – Justice for Who?

On Wednesday 18th January 2012, Barack Obama controversially rejected the permit needed for the go-ahead on Keystone XL, drawing huge praise from environmental groups who had been campaigning for just such an action, and criticisms from TransCanada (an oil company) and the Canadian government.

Keystone XL is a proposed 1,661-mile pipeline that would transport crude oil from Alberta’s Oil Sands to refineries in Texas. Those who support the pipeline argue that almost 20,000 new jobs will be generated; furthermore the United States would become energy secure. However environmental groups have accused TransCanada of boosting the numbers of jobs that Keystone XL will generate; they say numbers could be as low as 5,000 which is only a quarter of what the oil company has suggested.

The Oil Sands in themselves are hugely damaging to the environment; they produce huge amounts of toxic waste water and pollution which damage the local surroundings. There have been proven health impacts on local people who had no power to stop oil mining in the area, including increases in several serious diseases such as cancer and lupus. The area has a huge rate of deforestation, second only to the Amazon basin. If Keystone XL is passed then production in the area is likely to increase, causing even more damage to the environment and a rise in greenhouse gas emissions in the area.

In terms of justice, Keystone XL certainly looks very bleak. As of 17th October 2011, TransCanada held eminent domain actions against 34 landowners in Texas and 22 in South Dakota, meaning that people will be offered compensation for their land but under law they cannot stop the pipeline from being constructed on their property; compensation does not act as justice for these landowners. Much of the American Congress has disregarded environmental justice in favour of the economic potential Keystone XL could bring. Many activists have been arrested at demonstrations against Keystone XL, culling their right to freedom of speech, and halting their fight for environmental justice; at a demonstration in front of the White House in August 2011, 143 activists were arrested. The impacts of Keystone will also not be just; the oil is likely to spill, water will become polluted, boreal ecosystems will be at further threat, and there will be an even bigger dependence on oil.

TransCanada are still determined to make Keystone XL happen, but the environmental groups will be fighting hard for justice. Bill McKibben, writer, environmentalist and owner of wrote in an email to supporters that Obama had made a ‘brave decision’. He encouraged people to support the cause to stop oil companies from ‘using the atmosphere as an open sewer into which they dump their carbon for free’, and to fight back against the control they have held for too long. In Spring 2011 NASA environmental scientist James Hansen stated that the pipeline would be ‘game over for the planet’, and McKibben left his message to the environmental supporters on the note that they needed to fight back because ‘the world depends on it’. The big question is whether Obama will maintain his support of the environment, or if justice will be quashed in favour of big oil.

Picture References


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.


Black, R.  (2012), Panama clashes: Indigenous groups angry over mining law. Available: Last accessed 21.2.2012

Cook, C. (2012), Indigenous Mining Protestors Killed in Panama. Available: 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 Last accessed 21.2.2012

Canadian Tar Sands – are we heading for an environmental disaster?

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment. – Ansel Adams, American photographer and environmentalist

In the Canadian region of Alberta lies the ‘single largest industrial project in human history’ (Tan, 2008). The Canadian Oil Sands or ‘Tar Sands’ as they are sometimes known, hold a potential two trillion barrels of oil, cover a land area the size of Florida and are the number one oil supply to the United States; they are vital to the energy security and independence of the US and are therefore closely presided over by the Canadian government. In addition to this the sands provide employment to many local people and are predicted to generate an economic value of US$1trillion over the next ten years (International Resource Journal, 2010). The Canadian government’s official website about the Oil Sands provides much information about the local region (including infrastructure, education, recreation and more) as well as detailed information about issues ranging from air quality to aboriginal peoples to new research. It also provides the picture above, showing Alberta’s vast forest, with the tar sands looking fairly small in the background. However this picture is in stark contrast to many other photographs of the region.

Pictures such as this one give a much more realistic and much more startling view of what the tar sands are actually like. The previously forested lands have vanished, transformed into an unrecognisable industrial complex.

Oil interest in Alberta became prominent in the last quarter of the 19th century, when several reports emerged detailing the potential amount of oil in the area (Huseman & Short, 2012). Combined with recent transport development, the oil sands suddenly looked like an excellent opportunity.  These reports elicited a government decision to sign Treaty 8, which in essence was designed to give aboriginal people more rights; conversely the new government message was clear – the oil was worth more than the people. Today Canada uses what Huseman & Short call a ‘colonial trick’; the Canadians argue that the treaty was signed under the British Crown and therefore they bear no responsibility. In short, the Canadian government have absolved themselves of any responsibility to aboriginal groups.

But the government should be concerned. The tar sands have had many detrimental impacts upon the environment and human health. Oil extraction here uses much more water than conventional oil extraction, causing an excessive amount of toxic waste water. 480,000 gallons a day are dumped into tailing ponds which cover an area of 12,000 acres and can be seen from space. It is estimated that production releases between 8-37% more greenhouse gases than normal oil extraction due to the energy required. The area has the second highest rate of deforestation in the world, second only to the Amazon rainforest and there are many toxic impacts upon the remaining boreal ecosystems. There has been chronic pollution of the lower Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca which has caused changes in water quality, meat quality and the availability of fish and game for hunting. In addition to this, rivers, wetlands and lakes are being drained to supply the huge amount of water needed for production. There are also impacts upon the local wildlife; there have been many reports of ducks and other birds being killed by the toxins in the water (on which they land) (Desmogblog, 2010).

In terms of human health it appears that more people in the area are falling ill with serious illnesses and deformities. John O’Connor, a local doctor, carried out research in 2006 which discovered abnormally high levels of leukaemia, lymphoma, lupus, colon cancer and Graves disease. He also found that a rare cancer of the bile duct was present in 5 people out of a population of 1,200; usually it only affects 1 in 100,000 people. He concluded that this was a direct result of an increase in carcinogens. The government disputed these claims, and the Alberta Oil Sands website claims only two cases of the bile duct cancer were found.

In terms of aboriginal groups there has been an unprecedented impact on their way of life, as well as their cultural and physical condition. They don’t have a say in oil mining and the tar sands directly threaten the livelihoods of First Nation peoples in the area.

The concern for the future is that the oil sands show no sign of slowing. In a recession climate where building the economy is vital, and where the ‘war on terror’ has become a ‘war for oil’, those who hold the oil hold the power. The Canadians seem to be disregarding the environment because the oil sands are paving their way to a more powerful position on the world stage. But from a governmental perspective, why wouldn’t they? In terms of who holds the most oil, they are second only to Saudi Arabia. By 2020 production could reach 4 million barrels per day, and as mentioned before, the next decade is predicted to bring $1trillion in oil sand profits.

In terms of environment, this is hugely worrying. By 2015 the sands are expected to emit more greenhouse gases than the whole of Denmark alone (Desmogblog, 2010). The Canadian government seem to be more behind the oil sands than ever and as I write, Canada is threatening a trade war with the EU, who plan to label the oil produced in the oil sands as ‘polluting’ (Carrington, 2012). Following on from their unilateral withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol (where their aim of a 6% decrease turned into a 30% increase), Canada looks more than ever like a huge environmental problem for the future.


Carrington, D. (2012) Canada threatens trade war with EU over tar sands. Available:    Last accessed 20th Feb 2012

Desmogblog (2010) Top 10 Facts About the Alberta Oil Sands. Available: Last accessed 20th Feb 2012.

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Picture Sources

  1. View of the oil sands –
  2. Canadian Oil Sands by Peter Essick –
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  4. Flocks of ducks killed on tailing ponds –

How the Costa Concordia has affected the Environment

As initial rescue attempts have come to a close, attention now focuses on the environment and its aftermath. On the 13th of January the 114,500 tonne Costa Concordia collided with rocks and submerged. The shipwreck has led to concerns over the environment and worry of oil polluting the oceans.

If fuel leaks from the Costa Concordia it could result in similar effects as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Martijn Schuttevaer stated that ‘Smit’ a Dutch company has already started extracting oil from the cruise liner; however, people are unaware at how long the removal of the oil will take. Oil extraction has been delayed due to severe weather conditions and environmentalists fear it could take up to ten months. The fuel stored in the ship was extremely low quality and contained large amounts of tar. This has caused great fear to ecosystems and Tuscany coastlines.

Yearly, thousands of people take vacations on cruise ships visiting significant beauty spots around the globe. Close to the Costa Concordia shipwreck is Europe’s Largest Marine Sanctuary. The Island of Giglio is part of the Tuscan Archipelago National Park. The National Park contains 56,800 hectors of protected sea and also a large area of land. Environmental correspondent Richard Black stated that if oil does seep out of the cruise ship then it could threaten one of Europe’s leading fish supplies which include tuna, barracudas and crabs. In addition an oil spill could affect lizards and birds located on the National Park. The protected area is also a major attraction for dolphins, whales and turtles.  There is no justice for the wildlife located in the National Park, if an oil spill happened then it would threaten habitats and cause species to diverse elsewhere.

Furthermore, there is great fear of the effects the Costa Concordia will cause to the sea bed when removed.  The shipwreck would have damaged the majority of ecosystems due to the lack of light entering the sea bed. Decreases in grass and plant life will result in declines of oxygen in the ocean causing many ecosystems to die. This is a great injustice for plants and animals that have been affected by the Costa Concordia. Due to the lack of voice of ecosystems it highlights their lack of rights leaving it to Environmentalists to heighten their say.

There is also great injustice for local Italians if an oil spill did occur.  Many local fishermen would lose out on trade due declines in cod, scampi and lobster. It could be questioned how local Italians would be repaid for their loss in income due to the Costa Concordia capsizing. The Italian Mayor Sergio Ortelli is greatly concerned that the shipwreck would cause a decrease in tourism which is a key to the areas gross domestic product.  Many tourists maybe put off from visiting due to the capsized ship destroying the natural beauty and cultural heritage. It is clear to see that many Italians living on the coastlines could be forced into unemployment due to loss of jobs in tourism.