People, politics and plants: Lessons from Palm Oil

Apart from laziness, I haven’t been able to update the blog for a while because I was lucky enough to travel to Borneo over the summer. One of the most interesting things about this trip was visiting areas that had been converted into Oil Palm Plantations.

A quick intro to Palm Oil for the uninitiated –  you’ve probably consumed it today in one form or another. It’s present in a vast amount of cosmetics and hygiene products and  makes up a lot of what is marked as “vegetable oil” in food products.   Its plantations have transformed the landscape of South East Asia. It’s hard to convey just how much.

Prior to my trip, like a lot of people my only knowledge of Oil Palm was from controversial adverts like this one by Greenpeace (not for the squeamish!). When travelling in Borneo, the sheer amount of land converted to Oil Palm is staggering. You can travel by bus for 6 hours and pass four hours of continuous Oil Palm, stretching into the horizon. It looked a lot like this (image source: wikimedia commons) :

Image

The impact that Oil Palm has on the environment is clear – quite a few studies have found that the diversity of animals found there is vastly reduced. The social impact can be pretty devastating as well – large plantations often use cheap foreign labour from Indonesia and the Philipines. Worse still, these workers have much fewer rights than Malaysians – for example they aren’t entitled to free education. Whilst plantations which are part of certification schemes have to provide services such as schools for their workers, there is no legal requirement for all plantations to do this.

But what is the best thing to do about Palm Oil? Boycotting OIl Palm and vilifying companies tends to drive them away from regulation. In Malaysian Borneo at least, there is very little expansion going on anymore, so reducing demand is unlikely to achieve much. It seems to me that a more pragmatic approach is needed – conservationists, environmentalists and consumers need to all work with Oil Palm plantations to regulate the industry in order to make a difference. Buying certified sustainable palm oil supports those making efforts to improve the detrimental social and ecological effects of plantations, and seems a much more positive step forward.

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