Palm oil can be found in everything from lipstick to cookies*, ice cream and detergent. In fact, about half of the packaged products at your local super market contain palm oil. But with global demand increasing we have to take a hard look at what has gone wrong.
Palm oil cultivation has been linked to deforestation, environmental degradation, climate change, serious human rights violations, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced. Across the globe palm oil plantations leave behind death and destruction: Thousands of deaths due to air pollution around Indonesian palm oil plantations. Hundreds murdered at the hands of militarized security forces in Honduras.
The palm oil industry is marred with tragedy.
A Harvard and Columbia study exposed that air pollution related to palm oil projects may have caused the deaths of more than 100,000 people in south-east Asia in 2015. In Indonesia this haze, caused by deforestation fires linked to palm oil and other big agricultural business projects, is especially deadly. A report by the Global Fire Emissions Database shows that in 2015, fires in Indonesia put 600 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That is about how much Germany puts out in one year. This air pollution contains toxic chemicals such as carbon monoxide, ammonia and cyanide. This toxic haze kills.
In Honduras the picture is also grim. An in-depth ICIJ article describes the deaths connected to Honduras’ palm oil plantations: In 2012 Gregorio Chávez, a farmer and preacher in Honduras, was kidnapped, tortured and killed by palm oil plantation guards. Days later, his body was found buried on the farm. When his body was found there were signs of torture. Mr. Chávez was not the only victim. As his daughter says: “These plantations are bathed in blood. Not only has my father died, but more than 100 peasants have died in defense of the land.”
And yet, the industry is growing. The industry will be worth $88 billion dollars in the next five years. Africa has become the new frontier of industrial palm oil production. As much as 54 million acres (!) in Western and Central Africa could be converted to palm plantations by 2021.
As massive swaths of land and forests must be cleared for the development of the palm oil plantations, land, animals, and people who stand in the way are destroyed. We are already seeing some of the same problems we have seen in Central America and Southeast Asia growing in Western and Central Africa (for example when a palm oil giant bulldozed religious sites in Liberia). We need to take a hard look at what has gone wrong and who is responsible.
*Sadly, even Girl Scout cookies, though the Girl Scouts have been making some progress on the sustainability of their palm oil.