By: Katrina Lopez
Palm oil (Elaseis guineesis) is native to central Africa, but can be grown commercially in tropical lowland areas (Pye and Bhattacharya 2013). High returns and relatively cheap, it is the preferred cooking oil globally and a source of biodiesel (Vijay et al. 2016). Products derived from palm oil trees are very versatile, they can be used for cooking oil, as well as in other food, cosmetics, chemicals, and animal feed (Pye and Bhattacharya 2013). Palm oil industry increased by 65% between 1995 and 2002 with the largest and most expansive plantations located in Indonesia and Malaysia (Pye and Bhattacharya 2013). Due to the high demand for palm oil products, the industry has nearly doubled since 2003 (Vijay et al. 2016). But this demand and expansion of industry and plantations has led to the requirement of lots of land. Because of the palm oil tree’s range, widespread cultivation has led to the destruction of many species’ habitats and tropical forests that serve as important carbon storage. Southeast Asian governments promote the expansion of the palm oil industry as a strategy to increase development and profits for their countries (Pye and Bhattacharya 2013). Despite its wide range of uses and economic profits, cultivating palm oil results in many social and environmental impacts. Southeast Asia supports more than ten percent of tropical forests worldwide, which is now threaten from the dramatic increase in palm oil cultivation (Koh and Wilcove 2007). The palm oil industry shows the complex effects of globalization and urges us to evaluate the relationship between the environment and society.
A Short History of Palm Oil
To understand the issues that surround palm oil both political and environmental, we must first understand where it comes from - the oil palm tree. Today palm oil is the cheapest and highest yielding vegetable oil in the world (Vijay et al. 2016). Most of its production is for cooking oil, but is also commonly used in household cleaners, personal care, cosmetic products and most packaged and fast foods (Vijay et al. 2016). As we trace the history and production of palm oil industry we will see how industrial agriculture and globalization has impacted the way palm oil is grown and how it impacts surrounding communities.
The history of palm oil trees starts in West Africa, but is now cultivated across the tropics (Yong 2016). There is even evidence of palm oil in Egyptian tombs dating back some 5,000 years, where people were buried with casks of palm oil, which was thought to reflect high societal value (Yong 2016). Palm oil was widely used in West Africa but it didn’t make it into the international market until the British Industrial Revolution and the expansion of trade (Yong 2016). Demand for palm oil soared as it was used for candle-making and soap to industrial lubricants in machinery like the steam engine (Yong 2016, Lai et al. 2012). As demand grew, Europeans began to see the economic potential that palm oil had and started investing in its production, first in West Africa and then by bringing it to southeast Asia (Yong 2016, Lai et al. 2012). In the early 20th century oil palm trees were brought to Malaysia and in 1917 palm oil was being commercially produced (Yong 2016). Since the first commercial plantation, the palm oil industry in Malaysia has grown significantly. In the 1960s the Federal Land and Development Authority (FELDA) was introduced by the Malaysian government, as a land settlement scheme to encourage small and rural farmers to plant oil palm trees in an effort to alleviate poverty (Yong 2016, Lai et al. 2012). In Indonesia, palm oil plantations increased 30-fold by the 1970s making it the largest producer of palm oil worldwide (Yong 2016, Vijay et al. 2016). Today, palm oil has many uses we often don’t realize its presence in our everyday lives. Palm oil is in about 50% of all our food, making it practically impossible to avoid (Lai et al. 2012). The palm oil industry in southeast Asia has been central to an increase in the local economies and social progress for many rural communities that rely on the plantations for employment and city centers that have become export zones (Lai et al. 2012).
Political Economy: Land Grabs and Forced Labor
Palm oil is one of the most important economic crops in southeast Asia. In 2004, $6.3 billion USD and $4.1 billion USD were exported by Malaysia and Indonesia respectively, though now Indonesia exports more than Malaysia (Koh and Wilcove 2007). Palm oil is a very valuable crop, economically, and can provide a source of employment for many people. Small rural landholders are able to benefit from this cash economy which can lead to improved local infrastructure such as roads and schools (Koh and Wilcove 2007, Budidarsono et al. 2012). Budidarsono et al. (2012) estimated the economic impact of the palm oil industry and found that palm oil had the potential to increase family incomes 2 to 3 times. In some areas of Indonesia palm oil cultivation has replaced the traditional practices by 65% (Budidarsono et al. 2012). However, land that has been turned into plantations by palm oil companies are often without the fair compensation, consideration, or consultation of the local people occupying these lands (Colchester 2011). In some cases plantations import labor or illegal immigrants instead of employing local residents (Colchester 2011). From a political economy perspective, the increase in land grabs and forced labor as results of the palm oil industry, are unavoidable consequences of capitalist agriculture.
The rapid land change and acquisition in many southeast Asian countries is powered by the global market for palm oil (Colchester 2011). Regulations and procedures in these countries which were originally adapted to deal with small, unincorporated market, are now posing a challenge for this global demand. When land acquisition accelerates, many of the current laws are ineffective at regulating and protecting the rights of the indigenous people who currently own and reside on these lands (Colchester 2011). Plantations are often built on indigenous peoples’ land without consent and complete disregard for basic land rights (Colchester 2011). These lands are mostly converted by private companies and claimed by the the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry as part of “their” forest (Gellert 2015). The amount of land grabbed from rural and indigenous peoples is estimated between 20 to 45 million hectares (50 to 110 million acres) from 2005-2009 (Gellert 2015). The acquisition of palm oil lands has violated the rights of indigenous peoples as the lands are grabbed without compensation or remedy and results in the displacement of significant numbers of rural and indigenous peoples (Colchester 2011, Gellert 2015).
Though thought of as an economic booster, the palm oil industry not only grabs land from rural and indigenous people, the growing industry also uses forced labor. To meet the growing global demands, many palm oil companies rely on forced labor to produce cheaper palm oil. The violation of human rights in the palm oil industry receives little attention from the global economy, likely due to its complicated supply chain (Slater 2017). In Indonesia, workers on plantations are often working in conditions where their basic labor rights are violated, they are given horrible working and living conditions, and forced labor is often used (RAN 2014). The U.S. Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, cites Malaysia and Indonesia as palm oil producers that use forced labor, supporting the evidence that these countries do not provide adequate working conditions for their employees (RAN 2014). A case study has found that Kaula Lumpur Kepong (KLK), one of the largest palm oil companies, “has no public policies or commitments to upholding the rights of workers or to prevent the use of child labor” (RAN 2014). Interviews with children from these plantations revealed that children are lured away to work at these plantations with the promise of decent housing, high pay, and easy work (RAN 2014). As a result of capitalist agriculture, palm oil companies focus their efforts on producing more cheaply, which often means paying employees next to nothing with the promise of paying them later (RAN 2014).
Environmental Ethics: Deforestation and Pollution
To consider the issue of palm oil through the lens of environmental ethics, we need to ask questions of right action toward entire ecosystems, and future generations (Robbins et al. 2014). Robbins et al. (2014) explains how the “expansion of economic growth is frequently viewed as inherently problematic for the environment”. Southeast Asia’s tropical forests, a biodiversity hotspot and home to some of the most unique flora and fauna, are threatened by the cultivation of palm oil. The largest palm oil producing countries are in southeast Asia, where the rainforests are home to many endemic species, meaning they are only found in these areas (Koh and Wilcove 2008). Species in these rainforests improve ecosystem function through seed dispersal, nutrient cycling, and pollination (Petrenko et al. 2016). Protecting these forests and biodiversity preserves important ecosystem services such as water filtration and carbon storage (Petrenko et al. 2016). Indonesia’s growing palm oil production has led to the clearing of expansive areas of important tropical forests. If current rates of deforestation continue, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), estimate that 98% of Indonesian forests will be destroyed by 2022 (Ridder 2010). Cultivation of palm oil has caused irreversible damage and the expansion of palm oil plantations is often referred to as the major factor contributing to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and CO2 emissions (Turner et al. 2008). From an environmental ethics perspective we need to consider our moral obligations to protecting these rainforests and the immense biodiversity they hold.
Deforestation and Biodiversity Loss
Large areas of tropical forest are cleared and burned for palm oil plantations and in some areas where there is little enforcement of environmental legislation, plantations can often encroach on protected areas (Koh and Wilcove 2008). Encroaching on protected areas often threatens many plant and animal species that are native to these forests. In southeast Asia, three plant and eight animal species have been listed as “extinct”, and many others will likely face similar fates if mass deforestation continues (Petrenko et al. 2016). Some of these forests are home to endemic species. A great example of this is the orangutans, Sumatran elephants, and the Sumatran tigers, which are endemic to the lowland rainforests of southeast Asia, prime palm oil regions. Due to the destruction of their unique habitat as a result of palm oil plantations, orangutans, Sumatran elephants, and Sumatran tigers are now listed on the IUCN as critically endangered (Petrenko et al. 2016). While extinctions have happened in the past, the endangerment of these plants, animals, and ecosystems are due to anthropogenic causes. From an environmental ethics perspective, protecting and preserving these rainforests should be a priority, as it is our actions that have threatened their survival.
Carbon Emissions and Pollution
Deforestation in the tropics is the second largest contributor of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the world (Petrenko et al. 2016). Large amounts of carbon from biomass and peat swamps (tropical forests with carbon-rich, waterlogged soils) are released into the atmosphere in the process of converting tropical forests to palm oil plantations and threaten climate stability (Petrenko et al. 2016). Clearing these forests is often done by “slash and burn” practices which involves simply burning large areas to be turned into plantations. Not only is the smoke from these fires a major source of air pollution that affects human health, it also releases vast amounts of carbon. Tropical forests provide important storage of carbon. From 2000 to 2010 deforestation in Sumatra as a result of palm oil plantations released about 4,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide (Koh and Wilcove 2007). Not only does the destruction of these forests lead to carbon release, but the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and rodenticides, pollute the environment as they leach into the soil and waterways (Petrenko et al. 2016). The impacts of rainforest destruction are felt worldwide as the release of carbon into the atmosphere will influence and contribute to climate change. From an environmental ethics perspective humans have the moral obligation and responsibility to reduce our carbon emissions and find more sustainable practices.
Conclusion: The Palm Oil Puzzle
This paper reviewed the development of palm oil and the different economic and environmental impacts of the industry. Capitalist agriculture like that of the palm oil industry impact everyone from small landholders and workers, to animals like the orangutans that rely on these forests, to consumers. Globalization of production and consumer demand has led to the expansion of the palm oil industry, creating a unique puzzle between society and the environment. As palm oil plantations expand and strip the land they create conflicts with local peoples and wildlife. The different perspectives such as political economy and environmental ethics help provide different ways to approach the palm oils issue and can provide different types of solutions. An environmental ethics perspective urges us to be morally obligated to creating sustainable solutions to the process of palm oil to ensure integrity and stability of the environment for future generations. Being one of the top consumers and importers of palm oil, the U.S. has a unique opportunity use our purchasing power by supporting producers of palm oil that implement and enforce fair labor practice. By holding the top palm oil producing countries accountable for their actions, we can help curb palm oil’s negative impacts on the environment. Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), established in 2004 as the result of the collaboration of environmental groups and palm oil companies, set goals to find ways to make palm oil less destructive. The roundtable was designed to prevent illegal deforestation, destruction of biodiversity, poor employment conditions and water loss. Palm oil companies can become certified sustainable by RSPO, and today about 15 percent of palm oil is certified, though some consumer products are made with both in an effort to have the label on the product, but it is not 100% sustainable. Due to globalization and the complex networks of stakeholders in the industry, the palm oil puzzle has become a global issue. The expansion of the palm oil industry at the cost of the tropical forests and all that live there, is a concern for everyone, as the effects are and will be felt worldwide.
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