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


Rethink the wilderness

For far too many people the ‘wilderness’ is seen as a fragile, delicate pocket of land, free from the plague of people, noise and pollution. An island of tranquillity amongst the sea of urban-industrial modernity, (Cronon, 1995) and an area we can turn to for refuge from our modern over commoditisation, materialism and industrialisation. This romanticism of wilderness has, of course, called for people, with the best intentions, to savour these segments, as a foundation to saving the planet.
But think critically. Viewing wilderness in this way, it is not shallow and artificial, should we not consider the deeper, truer histories of the land? In the 18th century the words tied with the concept of wilderness were those of ‘untamed’, ‘unkept’, ‘dangerous’, ‘savage’ and ‘inhospitable’. It was not until the nineteenth century that the wilderness became a positive concept, and pivoted in its framework by becoming desirable. By this time tourism had flourished into one of the most prosperous global economies, with no sign of stopping or slowing, and thus the hanker to ‘discover’ more remote, extreme areas was paramount. The use of language by many companies, societies and the like, has allowed for indigenous groups to be marginalised from their own land. As the first world hunts for the untouched, indigenous people are campaigning and highlighting, that in actually fact, this seek for wilderness leads to a dead end, because this is their land, their ‘dangerous’ ‘savage’ wilderness, that under strict management is being maintained, inhabited and sustained.
As a geographer I urge you to consider; is this land truly uninhabited or are we, the first world, making the most important people in this debate, obscured from view, or even, totally invisible. Increasingly there has been more consideration to the idea that some areas perceived as wild, are actually not at all, and rather inhabited by indigenous groups. Not only in regards to their land rights but also in the management methods of their wilderness, which often differ to how outsiders ideas. However the concept of wilderness has allowed for reinforcement of colonial roots, and thus, over centuries of misrepresentation, racism and stereotyping is frequently prominent for these small societies. This coupled with a magnitude environmental campaigns, that seek to treasure the remaining wilderness have lead to indigenous groups being marginalised from society and their land.
So how do we solve this pressing issue? Whilst the UN has resolves to ensure no indigenous people are forcibly removed from their land, any changes have been very slow and small. Under aboriginal Australian understanding, it is believed the environment and culture are one and the same, and thus can not be separated. By adapting this understanding, the first world may begin to be educated in their ignorance of these issues. As it stands environment preservation is prioritised above indigenous rights, but why can a content medium be reached between the two? Understanding and acknowledgement of indigenous groups could not mean defeat, but should rather be a celebration of beautiful land and cultures.
The time is now, to raise awareness of the wilderness, the lack of it and its misconception. Not only geographers but holiday makers and the like, I call, to rethink your current understanding, consider its history, and who you might be uprooting as you touch down in their wilderness.
William Cronon 1995 –
Jenny Pickerill – Finding Common Ground?

More than a land rights conflict?

The Guarani

The Guarani Indians in Brazil are three groups of indigenous peoples who have suffered from land rights injustice for decades in the past. Recently, it has been highlighted much more by the media as people have started to question the breaching of laws and rights by Brazilian governments and constitutions. There has been conflict over the rights of the land traditionally inhabited by the Guarani since 1960 when they got displaced to make way for cattle ranches.  Since 2009, the Guarani have been forced to live by dangerous road sides, in completely unsuitable living conditions and most vitally, away from the land that holds so much value to them.


Makeshift reservation at the road side.

The land in question holds much more than physical value to the Guarani, as their      culture is completely centred around the land which their ancestors have lived on for hundreds of years. They believe that their “ancestors built the base for constructing the ‘land without evil’”, which is ultimately what their culture lives for. Most of this land has been destroyed and large scale deforestation has taken place to make way for predominantly cattle ranches and sugar cane plantations. The rights of the Guarani have been actively ignored, which is not actually all that surprising due the fact that the treatment of indigenous people in Brazil has been known to be marginalising and discriminatory throughout history. Until only a couple of decades ago, Constitution Brazilian law “treated indigenous people as minors” and generally failed to visibly enforce the rights of indigenous people as they exist in writing.

The most obvious conflict here is in the valuation of the environment, differing between the importance placed on cultural and economic value. The Guarani suffer the effects of this injustice everyday as they and their homes are mistreated and destroyed in favour of other people’s interest in the land for economic reasons. The Guarani were forced into tiny and massively overcrowded reservations, with appalling living standards and little access to food. Due to this, many people have died due to malnutrition and several of the Guarani have taken their own lives due to the loss of their land on which they depended on for both physical and mental well-being. This brings up the prevalent question of who has the right to decide who land valued in this way belongs to, and how is it fair to start questioning the inhabitancy of certain groups of people who have lived there for hundreds of years?  Furthermore, how is it fair to treat any group of people in such a discriminatory way to favour economic benefit?

Although the Guarani are inherently and undeniably concerned with losing their land due to the sacred role it plays in their whole society, I aim to encourage broader thinking in which deeper meanings behind this conflict may be recognised. Do the conflicts between the indigenous communities and the state run deeper than merely valuations of the land? Are the Guarani putting up such a fight in this example to desperately gain recognition and a higher level of sovereignty within their country? If the Guarani stay true to their beliefs and end up winning the conflict over land rights, they will have diminished the injustice they were suffering and end up with a greater amount of power than they have ever had before.  Whatever the Guarani have been doing, and for whatever reason, they have been doing something right as within the last month judges in Brazil allowed them to stay on parts of their ancestral land, after bravely and desperately re-occupying it in 2011.


Coombes, B., Johnson, J., and Howitt, R. (2011). Indigenous geographies I: Mere resource conflicts? The complexities in Indigenous land and environmental claims. Progress in Human Geography 36 (2). 1 – 12.

O. Carvalh, G. (2000). The Politics of Indigenous Land Rights in Brazil. Bulletin of Latin American Research. 19. 461-478.

Survival International, (2010) A Survival International Report to the UN Committe. Available: Last accessed 2nd March 2012.

Survival International, (2011) Tension mounts as Brazilian Indians retake land. Available: Last accessed 2nd March 2012.

Survival International, (2012) Judges allow Indians to remain on ancestral land. Available: Last accessed 2nd March 2012.

Survival International, The Guarani. Available: Last accessed 2nd March 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.


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

The Impact of Mineral Resource Extraction on the Self-determination of Indigenous People

A disproportionate volume of injustice is faced by indigenous communities in regards to extractive industrial operations. Edward Helmore (2012), writing for The Guardian, notes how Panama is at the forefront of clashes between indigenous people and the demand for minerals. The territory of the Ngäbe-Buglé people is situated above one of the richest mineral deposits in Central America. The Canadian mining company Inmet has signed a deal with Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli to extract 270 000 tons of copper a year.

The Ngäbe-Buglé People of Panama protesting against Government mining proposals.

Silvia Carrera, the leader of the Ngäbe-Buglé is aware of the detrimental environmental impacts the proposals entail. She simply says ‘The land is our mother’ while acknowledging the defencelessness of her people stating ‘we don’t have anything; we have only words… everything they do to us, to our land, to our companions, hurts us’ she notes that ‘this is the struggle of the indigenous people, we call for justice’.

Just Relations and Company-Community Conflict in Mining (Kemp et al, 2011) explores how mining companies knowingly or inadvertently cause conflict or exacerbate grievances within indigenous communities. These concerns are related to livelihood security, land or water access and ownership, and the sense of injustice. Kemp et al (2011) recognise that the search for resources is increasingly reaching environmentally and socially sensitive areas inhabited by indigenous people. Mining companies seek out areas where political and legal institutions are weak or corrupt. Panama has a history of shady banking practices and Martinelli appears determined to find a clause in legislation that protects indigenous environmental resources from exploitation (Helmore, 2012).

When one speaks of justice for indigenous people, there needs to be recognition of the different forms. Distributive justice is a focus on the fairness of the ends achieved which in mining would relate to the fairness of land access and the distribution and intensity of environmental impacts. The Ngäbe-Buglé have been offered no grievances.

Procedural justice refers to the formal processes through which decisions are made which in the extractive industries involves procedures which engage the local community (Kemp et al, 2011). Without strong internal systems capable of identifying and responding to community concerns, situations can escalate as is the case in Panama. In the past week, the Ngäbe-Buglé have protested outside Martinelli’s residence. The National Police Force responded by using teargas, making arrests and fatally shooting three protesters.  Panama’s Foreign Minister Roberto Henriquez admitted that this tough response by his government was only producing ‘deeper wounds’.

Interactional justice involves the vital informal interactions between company and community. Martinelli’s lack of commitment to earning the trust of the indigenous community is damaging his proposals. There is little evidence of consideration, honesty or respect from the government just attempts to force the Ngäbe-Buglé to give up their land. Kemp et al (2011) note the importance of an increase in dialogue as building a mutual understanding and awarding everyone a voice is more important than meeting extractive project objectives through consultation only. Without dialogue, justice is less likely to be achieved. The Ngäbe-Buglé feel disengaged and powerless which negatively affects procedural justice as they do not feel they have the ‘institutional space to voice their opinion in a meaningful way within the decision-making process’ (Kemp et al, 2011).

Ultimately, indigenous people in Panama and around the world increasingly need to be awarded the right to self determine. It is their environment and any depletion is detrimental to their quality of life. Yes we need more resources, but there other ways to achieve this. Taking over indigenous land is not the way forward. Surely it is finally time to leave them and their environment alone?

Kemp, D. Owen, J. Gotzmann, N. Bond, C. (2011). Just Relations and Company-Community Conflict in Mining. Journal of Business Ethics. Available: Last accessed 19th Feb 2012

Helmore, E. (2012). Panama’s village leader Silvia Carrera defies a president. Available: Last accessed 20th Feb 2012

Image: International Rivers