The promise and perils of palm oil production

There have been repeated attempts to clean up palm oil industry in the past, but this is expensive and time-consuming.

Hilary Stauffer December 18, 2013
The writer is an international lawyer who has worked on human rights and humanitarian law projects in the US, Europe, Asia and Africa

Earlier this month, in an announcement that was covered in the back pages of the business press, Singapore-based agricultural giant Wilmar International announced that it was making a public commitment to ‘sustainable’ business practices regarding its production of palm oil. Specifically, the company announced that from this point forward, its palm oil operations would be “free from any links” to deforestation or human rights abuses and it would ensure that its suppliers were held to the same standards.

Such a statement could be cynically dismissed as meaningless lip service to help a multinational corporation meet its year-end corporate social responsibility pledges. But it actually may signify a sea change in the palm oil industry and its attendant environmental and human rights abuses, in which anyone who has ever consumed any modern commodity is complicit.

Palm oil is a component of nearly everything (be it shampoo, laundry detergent, lipstick, ice cream, breakfast cereal, instant noodles or thousands of other things). It is the most widely used vegetable oil on earth, a high-yield, versatile product that is also becoming increasingly attractive as a biofuel alternative to fossil fuels.

However, this ubiquity comes at a very high price for the environment and communities where palm oil is produced and exported. Activists have long decried irresponsible manufacturing practices, which contribute to deforestation (through slash-and-burn farming), a corresponding increase in CO2 emissions, and polluted waterways and degradation of habitat for elephants, tigers and orangutans.

The production of palm oil (which is low paid and labour intensive) can have similarly negative consequences for human populations that live near and work on its plantations. The United Nations’ International Labour Organisation and several NGOs have all documented abuses including human trafficking, forced labour, long hours, withholding of pay, unsafe working conditions and violent retaliation against attempted union organisers. But the abuse most commonly associated with palm oil production is ‘land-grabs,’ the forcible displacement or dispossession of indigenous populations from ancestral lands to make room for new plantations. To add insult to injury, such land-grab victims may later find that the only jobs available in their rural towns and villages is working for palm oil producers on the land they used to own.

There have been repeated attempts to clean up the industry in the past and some producers do ensure that their palm oil is manufactured in ethical and sustainable ways. But this is expensive and time-consuming and under current industry practice, all palm oil — whether sustainably sourced or not — is mixed together for export. There are no ‘clean’ supply chains and no corresponding pressure from consumers to create one (the way there has been, for example, with regard to ‘fair trade coffee’). Thus, activists have focused their attention largely on the multinational corporations which make products containing palm oil for consumer consumption, with varying degrees of success.

It is nearly impossible to avoid palm oil in modern life, but inroads are finally being made into ensuring that its convenience and pervasiveness do not come at the expense of those individuals and communities who are most affected by its production.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 19th, 2013.

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IZ | 10 years ago | Reply

Wonder if Unilever will clean up its supply chain? Back when it was the Royal Africa Company and ruling Nigeria, it was founded on its palm oil products (soap and margarine being the big ones) in the 19th century. I hope its ready to take the necessary steps to ensure its left its legacy of exploitation behind.

It Is (still) Economy Stupid | 10 years ago | Reply

However, this ubiquity comes at a very high price Our body can not digest palm oil. The only reason for its use is long self life of the food (mainly fast food or snacks) made with this oil.

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