Many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are united by palm oil.
What does the soap we use in the shower, the butter we put on our bread, and the makeup we put on our faces have in common? All of these products, as well as countless others, include palm oil as a main ingredient. Palm oil is found in approximately 50% of products in any given supermarket, but what do we know about its production?
Palm oil is produced from the elaeis guineensis palm, which is native to Western Africa, but has spread throughout the Global South. At the end of the 19th century, palm seed reached southwest Asia through Sumatra and Malaysia. In Latin America, there is evidence that Africans taken to Portuguese colonies as slaves brought palm seed to Brazil as an important ingredient in many of their recipes. From there, palm oil production has increased, reaching its peak in the second half of the 20th century.
In 1964 production was concentrated in Western Africa, in particular, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cameroon, and in southwest Asia, in Malaysia and Indonesia. Twenty years later, Latin American production has strengthened due to increases in Colombian, Honduras, and Ecuadorian palm plantations. Last year’s figures show that Indonesia is currently the largest palm oil producer, with 6 million hectares. Malaysia follows, harvesting 39% of global production. Nonetheless, production in other Global South countries continues to grow, including Brazil, Costa Rica, and the Ivory Coast.
Palm oil production creates two main problems: one environmental and one social.
What happens to the environment? Palm oil is produced as a monoculture crop. Thus, producers deforest large swaths of land in order to create furrows and plant trees. Deforestation puts water and biodiversity at risk, as it clears everything in its path. Prior to planting, thousands of hectares are inundated with bulldozers that prepare the land for the transplantation of trees. Today, this practice has put at risk the Hunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, and led to a campaign to demand Pepsico stop using palm oil in Doritos.
What about people? Palm oil production has changed rural economies of many Global South countries in two main ways. First, palm production requires massive amounts of lands and financial investment, which naturally excludes small and low-income farmers. According to Cenipalma, palm is viable only when production exceeds 3,000 hectares. Additionally, the first harvest takes 6 to 7 years. During those years, the farmer must be able to make large financial investments without receiving any returns.
Second, sowing and producing palm oil requires less labor than other monoculture crops. For example, in Colombia, plantain production requires an estimated 8 workers for every 10 hectares. By contrast, palm production requires only 1 worker for those same 10 hectares. Thus, an increase in palm production also increases unemployment as well as the cost of food, as other crops are displaced by palm.
We must reconsider palm oil production to address these social and environmental concerns. An optimistic view of the future shows that civil society can exert pressure at two points. We must demand governments diversify agricultural projects and provide economic support for small and medium producers. Such measures can help reduce the displacement of small farmers due to the dynamics of palm production in rural areas.
We must demand companies create and comply with production standards that respect human rights. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a space for dialogue between companies and civil society, has debated which aspects of palm production should change in order to protect human rights. This year, we should watch Unilever, the owner of Sedal, FAB, Dove y Rexona, and others, which promised to only buy oil that met certain production standards. Should it fail to keep this promise, as Uprimny has suggested, we are left with mobilization and sabotage of companies that continue to use oil stained with human rights violations and environmental destruction.
If we do not take action regarding palm production, our homes will continue to be filled with new smells, moisturizing creams, and greasy foods, while thousands of subsistence farmers are displaced and our forests lose their gorillas, trees, and water.
*Researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia)