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