Most Hopi grow corn with only the precipitation that falls on their fields, but two decades of drought have some of them testing the waters of irrigation and hoping they can preserve other customs with their harvests.
June 16, 2021
Haven’t encountered any palm oil yet today? Give it a few hours. Made from the fruit of the oil palm tree, this oil is now an ingredient in more than half of all packaged goods, from infant formula, ice cream, and granola bars to lipstick, bread, and shampoo.
Palm oil production—which takes place in the tropical nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, Liberia, and Colombia, among others —has also been implicated in rampant deforestation and human rights and labor abuses, many of them ongoing. Yet most of us know little about its impacts.
Journalist Jocelyn Zuckerman has spent years traveling across the world, investigating the environmental, health, and human impacts of the palm oil industry. In her new book, Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World, she takes readers into the heart of Palm Oil Nation for a fast paced and detailed look at the destruction the commodity has sown. Zuckerman follows an environmental activist who dismantles illegal oil palm plantations, visits a conservationist who rescues endangered orangutans, sits with poachers who kill thousands of critically endangered birds, and calls on a man who survived electrocution while harvesting oil palm fruit. She interviews doctors, shopkeepers, bureaucrats, and workers, and goes undercover with investigators to track illegal shipments of the oil.
Civil Eats spoke with Zuckerman about the costs of the palm oil business, the industry’s role in destroying rainforests critical to absorbing carbon, the oil’s strong connections to poverty and processed food, and what consumers can do to help clean up the industry.
Can you start by painting a picture of what it was like when you visited an oil palm plantation?
I got the idea to write this book in Liberia. I had gone there to report a story about land grabs and I really didn’t know anything about oil palm. I went to a remote corner in the south of Liberia, an eight-hour drive from Monrovia, the capital, on really bad roads. We woke up early in the morning—I was with a photographer—and drove to this area where there had been some villages. The oil palm company had come in and bulldozed for miles and miles. I talked to the villagers and they said, “They knocked down our houses, they plowed right through our crops and gravesites.” It felt like a war zone; it was just astonishing. This landscape went on and on for miles and it had been a tropical rainforest, dense and alive with animals, birds, and insects.
I also went north of Monrovia to another county where the [palm oil] industry had already been operating for a couple of years. We drove around plantations with young oil palm plants, which look like little bushes two-three feet tall, little fronds hugging the ground. Again, it was miles and miles of this. You invariably get lost because these landscapes are so huge. The oil palm is native to western and central Africa, including Liberia, but in the past the palms didn’t grow on plantations. They were intercropped with other crops. But in these landscapes where I found myself, they had been deliberately planted in rows and rows [with nothing else].
You write that oil-palm plantations now cover an area the size of New Zealand. And the result isn’t just the destruction of habitat for animals like orangutans, but also the continuous displacement of local and Indigenous communities. What happens to these uprooted people?
Both in Liberia and Indonesia, people said to me, “The forest is our supermarket.” That’s where they get their building materials, all their plants and roots, their proteins (the small animals in the forest), their water supply, and their medicines. You knock that all down and then the agrochemicals get in the rivers; in so many of these communities, they can’t drink the water anymore because it’s polluted from the farm chemicals. So, they’re just marooned. Ian Singleton, the British primatologist [featured in the book] . . . says, “These people have nothing. They’re totally screwed.”
I saw that in Guatemala, I saw it in Indonesia, in Liberia, over and over again. In Indonesia, I spent some time with Indigenous people. It was devastating; they were living in a clearing, surrounded by plantations, under blue tarps they had gotten from an aid agency. They had some pots and pans, a lot of cigarettes, and nothing else. A youngish guy in his 20s, who was visibly angry, said, “Just a few years ago, we could hunt wild boar here. Now we have nothing. They’ve taken everything from us.”
One of the places that’s being destroyed by the spread of palm oil plantations is the Leuser Ecosystem, a World Heritage Site on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Can you tell us more about this place, how it’s being impacted, and why it’s so important?
The Leuser Ecosystem is a tropical rainforest in the northern part of Sumatra, and it’s the only place in the world that has a forest big enough in size and in the right place on the planet to support populations of orangutans, tigers, rhinos, and elephants. There are also all manner of amazing birds living there. That’s why Leuser is often called “the last place on earth.” It’s one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. And its forests and peatlands store massive amounts of carbon. Part of Leuser is a national park. [The area includes] high mountains, but there are also low-lying areas that the industry is targeting for palm oil development. They’ve been eating away at the edges and they’ve even gone into the park and cut down the rainforest to plant palms. In some cases, it’s smallholder farmers who are planting the oil palms, trying to make a living. The problem is that they know that [even if they plant illegally] they can always find a mill nearby to sell to, no questions asked.
Indonesia and Malaysia, which together account for 85 percent of the global palm oil supply, often point out that a large percentage of their plantations are managed not by corporations but by these smallholder farmers you just mentioned. How do these small farmers fit into the palm oil industry picture?
That’s certainly the talking point of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council and the Indonesian government. Both say that 40 percent of their country’s palm oil industry is smallholders. And if anybody ever says, “We need to put curbs on the palm oil industry,” “We shouldn’t use palm oil as a biofuel,” or “We’re going to cut down on imports,” they say, “You’re oppressing these poor small farmers.”
The palm oil industry hired a Washington-based lobbying firm called the DCI Group that previously developed campaigns for tobacco and oil multinationals. Reporters at Reuters got a hold of their public affairs proposal and it was focused on smallholder farmers. The goal is to make Western countries look like they’re being prejudiced against these farmers. And yet, the smallholders don’t necessarily benefit from all this development. Just last year after the Indonesian government announced subsidies for the palm oil industry, there was a big outcry among the smallholders. They said the government acts like it’s helping the little people, but in fact all the subsidies go to help the big palm oil corporations. Also, last year, Indonesia moved to end the smallholder guarantee, meaning palm oil companies will no longer have to allocate 20 percent of their land for smallholder farmers.
In your book, you dedicate an entire section to the history of palm oil—which is full of massacres, rapes, murders, child labor, and other horrific events—and roughly corresponds to the history of colonization. Why was it important to describe this history?
I had no idea that palm oil was this commodity going back to the 18th century and that it had literally replaced the slave trade. . . . The infrastructure for the slave trade in Nigeria basically adopted palm oil where it used to traffic humans from the interior of the country. And the further back I read, the more I saw the links between colonialism, racism, and multinational companies and who’s doing what to whom in the global South. I was fascinated by this George Goldie character [a British aristocrat who through violence controlled the Niger Delta’s palm oil trade], by William Lever [a British grocer who built vast plantations rife with forced labor and founded the company Unilever], and by King Jaja [a former slave who became one of the most powerful palm oil traders in Nigeria]. There are many parallels between the origins of this industry and what’s happening today—mainly because it’s a crop that grows right around the equator, in poor countries where the governance isn’t great and where powerful forces—whether it’s foreign corporations or corrupt politicians—are taking advantage of [those facts].
If you look at the stories coming out of Malaysia today—the slave labor tied to the palm oil industry, the trafficking, companies taking their [workers’] passports and not paying them—it’s not that different from what happened in the past, sadly. And the agrochemicals involved today may be worse. A Human Rights Watch report out of the Congo, where researchers interviewed more than 40 men working on a plantation, comes to mind. More than two thirds of these men said they had become impotent since they started the job. And these were guys in their 20s and 30s.
Your descriptions of the impacts of toxic chemicals on palm oil workers are really striking. The complete lack of protective gear or grossly inadequate gear that does more harm than good, the lack of showers to wash off the chemicals, workers riding home for hours in pesticide-soaked clothing and, when they get home, having to choose whether to use the limited water they have for washing or for cooking dinner for their kids. What can American consumers horrified with such labor conditions do to help change them?
People can get informed and write to their legislators. After an Associated Press investigation into labor and human rights abuses in Asia’s palm oil industry was published at the end of last year, the U.S. announced that it was going to ban shipments. It is currently blocking shipments of palm oil from two major Malaysian producers over the allegations of forced labor, child labor, and physical and sexual abuse on palm oil plantations. A couple of years ago, I was talking with the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum about these issues and they were trying to get the shipments from these companies blocked from entering the U.S. But at the time, legislators were going along with it, maybe because they thought it didn’t matter to the public. Well, this AP series got a lot of attention, so senators demanded action and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued several bans.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum have been working on these issues for a while. They have lots of reports and information, and they’re in touch with different communities on the ground. They also have ongoing campaigns, so you can get involved and get the message out on social media. Social media can go a long way. And if you’re interested in animal rights, you can look at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme and the Rainforest Action Network. It seems to me that getting the word out is crucial, so that companies realize we know this is going on, we care about it, and we want to see some changes. Part of why this industry has gotten away with abuses for so long is that everyone has been in the dark about it.
Given the harm and destruction wrought by the palm oil industry, what have countries like Indonesia and Malaysia done in response?
They have not done a lot. The changes have really come as a result of work by NGOs and the industry, and have also involved consumer-facing companies. That has gone much further than any reforms that the governments have put in place.
Many of the activists and organizations who are fighting to stop the encroachment of palm oil plantations on tropical forests are local to the areas most impacted. This goes against the narrative that it’s white Westerners who save the rainforests and help the animals.
I encountered them everywhere I went: in Honduras, where it’s very dangerous for them to speak out, in Guatemala, Liberia, certainly in Indonesia and Malaysia. They are the ones who watch their livelihoods and their cultures being destroyed. And they are very brave to speak out against it because these activists and journalists routinely get harassed, assaulted, and even murdered. What I also found out is that western organizations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have really close connections with all of these grassroots activists on the ground. They meet with them, spend time with them, and they’re coordinating campaigns with them. Sometimes they help to bring them to testify in Washington. And while these Western organizations might have more money and can amplify the messages to Western audiences, they’re really taking their cues from the folks on the ground. One of the activists I met in Guatemala was getting death threats. He was very fearful. He was moving around, sleeping in different places every night because he knew that the palm oil industry was not happy with him.
India imports more palm oil than any other nation, and it also has seen an epidemic of obesity. Because it’s cheap, a lot of street vendors use it. It’s also the oil of choice for the processed food companies that have flooded the country over the past few years. You talk about this health disparity as an equity issue. Doesn’t it really point us to the elephant in the room, which is poverty?
Part of the irony here is that both in Indonesia and Malaysia the palm oil industries grew as a result of poverty alleviation schemes right after independence. The governments had these big, very poor populations and they had lots of forested land. So they cleared the land, moved people, gave them seedlings, and encouraged them to grow oil palm. [The governments also launched campaigns to promote domestic consumption of palm oil.] In 1965, palm oil accounted for just 2 percent of Indonesians’ cooking oil usage, and by 2010, it had soared to 94 percent. So, it grew as a result of these governments trying to figure out how to deal with all of their poor people. This is the problem with so many products and capitalism.
Part of the challenge in India is also that the country is being flooded with is all this processed food and fast food. In that context, I would say it’s the multinational corporations who are behind the dumping of this shit in these countries. That’s a very different issue from that of the street vendors, who are just poor people trying to get by, and they don’t have the luxury of using more expensive oils.
Palm oil is a common a replacement for partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. In 2015, the U.S. banned trans fats and that ban left a vacuum, which palm oil filled gladly. Can we really tackle the palm oil issue if we’re not tackling the exponential rise of junk food? Because junk food is reliant on cheap oil, and if we simply take palm oil away, the processed food industry will look for another replacement.
I totally agree. The growth of palm oil needs to be looked at holistically. We are on the verge of climate collapse and we have a finite amount of land, particularly tropical rainforests. And the oil supply in the global diet has gone up by an insane amount. We’re ingesting far more oil than we ever did and it has increased far more than sugar and other sweeteners. It’s not like we need all this oil in our diet. We’ve never needed it, and it’s part of the reason for the global obesity epidemic.
Developing countries such as Malaysia use the phrase “eco colonialism” to defend their support of large-scale palm oil production and say that Western activists have no right to encroach on developing economies. Should we, in the West, expect that poor countries like Malaysia or Liberia stop or slow down palm oil development, given that our own environmental records are so bad?
Western governments and societies can’t just sit over here saying, “You people are so terrible for chopping down your rainforests; you’ve got to stop doing that.” If we expect these governments to stop development, then we need to compensate them because it’s in our interest. We need to start legislating on this side of the globe so that stuff happens.
I am a little bit optimistic that between the pandemic and climate change really coming on as a reality, people are starting to feel like we really need to change. The reality of it is finally coming home. I think corporations also are realizing this. It’s self-preservation. Time is running out, and [the people running] these companies are going to be as screwed as we are if the planet collapses. The LEAF [Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance] Coalition, a new initiative to lower emissions by protecting tropical forests, was announced during President Biden’s climate summit. It’s made up of governments, including the U.S., Britain, and Norway, and a group of large corporations like Amazon, Airbnb, Unilever and Nestle. The goal of this coalition is to create an international marketplace in which carbon credits can be sold in exchange for avoiding deforestation. It’s an improvement on a previous initiative called REDD+, a United Nations program that started in 2008 and has faced some challenges.
You mentioned the new initiative focused on preventing deforestation in exchange for carbon credits. I’m wondering if palm oil’s role in intensifying carbon emissions is becoming more of a flashpoint, and in particular the damage caused to peatlands in these tropical rainforests. Most people have never heard of peatlands, so can you talk about what they are and why there are so crucial to all of humanity?
Peatlands are basically soils formed over thousands of years through the accumulation of organic matter. But they’re waterlogged so they don’t decompose. In Indonesia, Borneo, and Sumatra, peatlands can be up to 60 feet deep . . . it’s basically coal in the making. When the palm oil companies want to establish plantations, they dig canals and use the waterways to bring in their excavators. Then they cut down all the trees, let the water drain out, and then set it all on fire. And because it’s so damp, these peat fires can smolder literally for years, even decades, while emitting carbon. It’s a carbon bomb. According to the Center for International Forestry Research, a forestry organization based in Indonesia, the annual carbon emissions from Indonesia’s forests and peatlands rival those of the entire state of California.
In the mid 2000s, President Bush announced a new biofuels mandate [known as the Renewable Fuel Standard or the “ethanol mandate”]. The European Union also passed a similar mandate to get more biofuels from plants. It was hailed as this great opportunity for American farmers and for the environment, a way to curb our carbon emissions. But what we didn’t realize is that if you’re going to start using more soy and corn ethanol in this country to make fuels, then those crops are no longer going to be available in sufficient amounts for the food supply. And so either Americans will have to stop eating so much processed food or you’ll need to bring that oil from somewhere else. This was a disaster we created. The mandate basically gave a green light to palm oil companies to expand, chop down large swaths of tropical forests, and destroy the peatlands because they now had a new market. And in the European Union, unlike in the U.S., they were also using palm oil for biodiesel production.
The results of these policies were catastrophic. If you actually do the carbon calculation and you factor in the fact that companies are destroying tropical rainforests and burning the peatlands, leading to huge carbon emissions, you realize biofuel is not a sustainable fuel at all. In fact, it’s far worse than petroleum-based fuels. So the EU changed its mandate last year and you can no longer use palm oil in biofuels there. But the mandate in the U.S. has stayed the same, and we’re still importing more palm oil to fill that vacuum.
What about sustainable, certified palm oil that touts itself as socially and environmentally responsible? Should American consumers trust these claims?
In 2004, when people started making an outcry about environmental and human rights issues linked to palm oil, the industry started the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO. It’s a certification scheme that requires companies to comply with a set of environmental and social criteria. But it’s mainly an industry group—of the 16 members on its board, 12 are from the palm oil industry. Another issue is that even now, after 17 years, only 19 percent of the global palm oil supply is certified RSPO. So, they haven’t gotten very far. The RSPO has really lax standards. Although those have improved a bit over the past couple of years, the certification relies on third party auditors who visit the plantations to make sure the companies are doing everything right.
When I was in Honduras, I heard a lot of stories about how the RSPO is basically a greenwashing organization. So I went and talked to people on a plantation, and they said the RSPO auditors had been there the week before. The workers told me that their superiors on the plantation had coached them before the auditors came to say they have the best working conditions and they never plant close to the river. Their managers were standing right next to them when they were being interviewed by the auditors, and afterward the ones who performed badly were punished or fired and the ones who said the right things were given banquets. The other problem is that these auditors are paid by the companies to come in, so that’s obviously a conflict of interest.
In 2013, Wilmar—the biggest oil palm plantation owner—signed a new pledge called the No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE). The company said they weren’t going to deforest, develop new plantations on peatland, or exploit their workers. The following year, other big palm oil traders followed suit and also signed this pledge. And it has had more teeth than the RSPO. But there’s still a lot of illegally produced oil finding its way into the global market.
There is also a company called Natural Habitats, which focuses on sustainable, organic production. I visited some of the smallholder farms it works with. The oil palm was intercropped with passion fruit and other crops. I met with three farmers and toured their farms, which is also where the farmers live, so these are not plantations. They also had a health clinic and schools. It was very impressive and well run. The problem is just that it’s tiny, the company is currently only working with small farmers in Ecuador. Their oil goes into Nutiva, [and its sold as] an unrefined red palm oil. Natural Habitats and some other companies also started a campaign called Palm Done Right. It’s a group of brands, retail and business partners, and farmers who are trying to grow oil palms in a way that’s sustainable both environmentally and in terms of human social progress. It’s a small initiative, but if people start getting interested it could expand.
You mention that even when companies are RSPO-certified, they still get shipments from illegal plantations. Why is that?
Companies say they have traced their palm oil from the mill. The process is that oil palm fruit comes from the plantation, then goes to the mill, then to the refinery and finally to consumer facing companies. It all gets mixed together. I went undercover with [investigators from Eyes on the Forest, a Sumatra watchdog group] and witnessed this firsthand. In many cases, the fruit processed at a mill is presumed to be from legal places, but in fact there’s a lot of shenanigans happening, with fruit harvested from peatlands, protected wildlife reserves, or national parks that comes to these mills. It’s coming from an illegal source, and either the mill doesn’t realize or it looks the other way.
In Indonesia, they put a moratorium on developing on peatlands a couple of years ago and they did all this mapping. But there is so much corruption that all the maps somehow mysteriously change; what used to be designated peatland is no longer peatland. So there are a lot of moving targets.
Should consumers boycott palm oil? I read that some NGOs, including the World Wildlife Fund, argue that palm oil boycotts may not work because substituting other oils for palm may require significantly more land to produce the same volume. What’s your stance?
That’s an industry talking point. It’s true that palm oil is really productive, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Most of those other oils don’t only grow in the tropics. Soy is grown in Brazil, but we also grow it in the Midwest. I think we need to consider what else that land can be used for in terms of carbon sequestration, including peatlands and biodiversity. There’s certainly no worse terrain to use for producing oil than tropical rainforests. Another issue is that other oil crops (e.g. corn and soy) are annual crops. And in the tropics, you can plant and harvest up to three crops per year. But the oil palm is a perennial so you’re only harvesting once. The other thing is that some of those other oil crops, particularly soy, also produce protein meal [that feeds animals]. It’s sort of comparing apples and oranges.
It’s a lie that we need this much oil in the world. Our bodies don’t need it. I don’t think it’s my place to say whether or not you should boycott palm oil. But I would say: Learn what what is involved in the production of this product, both in terms of planetary health and human rights, and start talking about it. That will put pressure on governments and on the industry to at least begin cleaning up this industry.
You mention that the challenges posed by the industry may soon be lessened because we may gain access to an alternative oil that’s similar in character to palm oil but is produced in a lab. Could technology potentially solve some of the issues we’ve discussed?
The company you mention, Xylome, based in Madison, Wisconsin, [which uses a fermentation process to create oil with a chemical profile identical to palm oil], is not the only one. Another one, New York-based c16 Biosciences, is also making synthetic palm oil in a lab. And there’s also a group at the University of Bath in the U.K. that’s working on synthetic palm oil. I imagine there are others as well. That’d be cool if we could eventually produce palm oil in a lab, using waste materials like corn stover, and over time restore those peatlands and rainforests so that they can sequester carbon and help preserve biodiversity. Of course, we’ll also need to help those economies transition to other crops and/or industries. All of this is likely a ways off, but if we can attack the problem from various angles—including demanding labor reforms and cutting down on junk foods—I think we’ve got a chance of tackling the bigger problem.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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