Despite Hazepocalypse, climate change, disappearing orang-utans, vanishing Sumatran tigers, human rights violations and a host of other calamities linked to the palm oil business, the tropical oil is riding high and selling big. Why? Because, like the fossil fuel industry in the US and the garment industry in Bangladesh, it owns the Malaysian government. Thatís capitalism in a (palm) nutshell: money rules.
The governments of commercial palm growing countries like Malaysia and Indonesia could enforce the standards decided on by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, but they donít. Itís totally voluntary and of course the palm oil giants donít want to because they will make less money in the short term.
The whole issue around palm oil is so disheartening. Itís in virtually everything, from processed foods to cosmetics and hygiene products to ďenvironmentally friendlyĒ biofuels. Furthermore, buying products with labels stating that they contain sustainable palm oil may be of little to no use. Thatís right Ė it turns out that a lot of this labelling is little more than a bit of green marketing aka ďgreenwashingĒ. Iíve also just read that another casualty of palm oil cultivation in Indonesia is the Sumatran elephant. For years, the land here has remained relatively untouched, with oil palm expansion and road-building spurned amidst a bitter civil war that reaped a bloody toll until a ceasefire gradually came into place after the tsunami in 2001. Because of this isolation, Aceh is the last real stronghold for healthy herds of critically endangered Sumatran elephants, who live alongside rhinos, tigers and orang-utans in significant numbers; a far cry from the isolated, genetically-starved herds further south, whose inter-connected territories have been cut off by palm oil companies and paper concessions into tiny, token national parks. But all this is beginning to change. With peace has come opportunity, and palm oil companies are rapidly moving into the Aceh lowlands, squeezing elephants out of ever-diminishing forests and into conflict with local people.
If you donít hate palm oil firms already, maybe you should just cultivate your contempt for the system that enables them. Iíll give you a hint as to what it is: it provides more rights to companies than people and gives them a lot more say in state policy.
India and China are its biggest consumers, with Pakistan and Bangladesh emerging as growing markets. As the major buyers, they influence price and production, and can also impact the way the oil is produced, controversial because of its adverse effect on the environment.
Meanwhile, there is a backlash in the form of pro-palm oil propaganda presumably from the industry itself or from those friendly with it. Arguments include the old standard (and logical) point that the West cut down most of its forests hundreds of years ago for development and is now wagging its finger at Southeast Asia for doing the same. But the argument that Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the WWF are simply taking small incidents about deforestation, the endangerment of wildlife and displacement of peoples and blowing them all out of proportion is a bit rich.
Itís also true that Western countries (especially the US) generally contribute more per capita to climate change and all that other bad stuff than developing countries do. But itís not about individuals or even individual countries. Itís about a system that links these countries as producers and consumers and often both.
Anyway, read this bit of pro palm oil fluff here and make up your own mind, but afterwards read this piece in National Geographic for a bit of non-palm funded journalism. I know which one I trust more.