Palm Oil and the World

Increasing production of palm oil in developing nations:
Human Rights

          The expansion of palm oil production leads to human rights abuses in Indonesia. Palm oil companies are using increasingly extreme and harmful tactics to convert more land into plantations for the production of palm oil. Due to the unsustainable methods exercised in response to the high demand for this commodity, many indigenous communities are left without land, water or adequate livelihoods. Prior to farming expansion, communities were self-sufficient. They are now suffering financially and are unable to afford food and education. Along with these basic life necessities, traditional customs and cultural practices are being damaged as well. The citizens of Indonesia that are being affected by the mass creation of palm oil plantations are progressively losing their human rights. In ways such as the right to water, to health, the right to work, cultural rights and the right to be protected from ill-treatment and arbitrary arrest. In many communities these rights are being denied. The devastating effects of palm oil are clearly affecting the lives of the citizens of Indonesia, and after awhile there will be even less human rights. It is more important than ever that we as consumers focus on a more sustainable approach to the palm oil issue.

The following graph illustrates the major increases of palm oil plantations in Indonesia over the last 30 years:

  Animal Rights

            The deforestation that occurs in Indonesia and Malaysia caused by palm oil companies, destroys the wildlife, and the loss of habitat of numerous animals. The populations of these animals are being greatly reduced because the remaining rainforest cannot support all the refugee animals in addition to the existing inhabitants. The displaced animals become stressed and may starve, be killed, or die because they cannot find enough food or find unoccupied land for a new home range and feeding grounds. In addition, because of the increasingly larger areas of farmland these animals are having problems relocating safely without accidentally “trespassing” and being killed on-the-spot.

          Furthermore, the orangutan population is greatly threatened because of their shrinking habitats. Since they are pushed closer to human settlements they are beginning to raid palm oil plantations, where they become either trapped or shot. In one raid a single orangutan can eat 50 palm oil trees. Due to this issue, farmers can legally kill orangutans to protect their crops. This has led to hundreds of killings over the past few years, and will only increase over time if nothing is done.

          Below are a few facts about the impact of the deforestation on animal population:

Lost Habitat = Lost Animals

The roughly 12,600 square miles of rainforest destroyed for oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia could have supported:

  • Bornean and Sumatran orangutans: 30 to 55 viable breeding subpopulations of 500 animals each
  • Sumatran rhinoceros: 550-650 rhinos (current remaining population is 400)
  • Asian elephant: 200-550 elephant families
  • Sumatran Tiger: 400-670 tigers (current remaining population is 250)

  Environmental Rights

          Palm oil plantations also cause major harm to the environment. This includes: pollution and contamination of air, soil and water by the heavy use of pesticides, soil erosion and increased sedimentation in rivers and streams, water pollution from dumping of untreated palm oil-mill effluent, and air pollution from forest fires.

  • In the production of palm oil about 25 different herbicides, insecticides, and other pesticides are used. This causes contamination of crops, soils, and groundwater.
  • When clearing the land for production, it causes the topsoil to erode and quadruples sedimentation in waterways. When there is rain the topsoil is carried directly into the water, negatively effecting rivers and streams.
  • Wastewater effluent from palm oil mills is a mixture of water, crushed shells, and fat residue resulting from the initial processing of crude palm oil from fresh palm fruits, which must be crushed within 24 hours of harvest. Palm oil companies often dispose of palm oil-mill effluent into nearby bodies of water, resulting in water turning brown, dirty, and smelly, while killing aquatic life.
  • In Indonesia, companies will clear land for plantation by using forest fires. The smoke and haze creates mass amounts of air pollution which has affected the health of 70 million people.

Labor Practices

          The palm oil industry does create many jobs in these developing countries, since there is increased demand and business. However, the quality of employment is very poor. There are inadequate health and safety training, strikes lasting more than three days lead to layoffs, the regional minimum wages vary and cannot cover daily expenses, and increased child labor.

Community/Global Market/Economy

        There are currently close to one million acres of land used for the cultivation of palm oil in Columbia. Paramilitary groups seeking to exploit rural farmland for the cultivation of coca shrubs and heroine poppies seized much of this land from small farmers and villages. Since the beginning of these illegal land seizures in 2000 it has been estimated that 1,800 people have been killed and nearly 4 million displaced from their land. Of this 4 million, two-thirds owned farmland. Some of these farmers were bought out at absurdly low prices while others were either killed or abandoned their land out of fear of violence. With increasing demand for clean biofuels in the West and international crackdowns on drug plantations, many of these paramilitary groups have shifted their focus to producing palm oil for use in biofuel. Columbia was the first South American country to begin producing biofuels and is still the region's highest exporter of biofuel. There are currently nearly one million acres of land producing palm oil in Columbia alone.