Palm Oil: The Ingredient Behind Human Rights Abuses and Eco-Destruction That’s Probably in Your Home Right Now

Lambert here: Long on problem description, I’d say a bit short on solutions. To me, the “ethical consumers” frame seems a little… high-minded.

By Reynard Loki, a co-founder of the Observatory, where he is the environment and animal rights editor. He is also a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food, and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

​​“Oil palm is one of the world’s most prominent and effective vegetable oils globally, and is contributing 40 percent of global trade volume in vegetable oils,” said Beatriz Fernandez, who manages the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s partnership in the GCRF Trade, Development and the Environment Hub, during a high-level dialogue held on August 30, 2022, in Jakarta and online, to discuss the situation of the sustainable palm oil trade in Indonesia in light of the shocks to the global food system spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Center for International Forestry Research, a nonprofit scientific research organization, the challenges for the sustainable palm oil sector include “the need to align policies and development goals with the country’s biodiversity, climate change and sustainable development commitments; coordination of various certification mechanisms; and limited capacity of smallholder farmers to comply with sustainability standards.”

Palm Oil: Violent Business

Another challenge is violence. In May 2020, the village Ijaw-Gbene in southern Nigeria was burnt to the ground, leaving more than 80 people without homes. According to a report by Chief Ajele Sunday, the spokesman of the people of the Okomu Kingdom, witnesses identified the perpetrators as members of the security force employed by the Okomu Oil Palm Plantation supported by soldiers in the Nigerian army. At the time, Ijaw-Gbene was the fourth village in the region to experience such an attack.

Joseph Miyani, one of the victims of the attack, said that the company’s security forces and government soldiers fired weapons “before setting our houses ablaze.” He reported that villagers fled into the bush to escape the violence, even jumping into a nearby river to protect themselves. “Since that day my life has been miserable … I don’t know where to start,” Miyani said. “We are now taking shelter in a church building.”

Okomu is a subsidiary of Société Financière des Caoutchoucs (SOCFIN), an agribusiness corporation that operates palm oil and rubber plantations across 10 Asian and African countries. “In Cameroon, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Cambodia, local people complain about ruthless methods wherever [SOCFIN’s] subsidiaries are active,” reports Rainforest Rescue, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Hamburg, Germany. “Repeatedly, after losing their lands to the company, local communities in Africa and Asia have been subject to violence, intimidation, and distress as a result of the palm oil and rubber exploitation,” writes Frédéric Mousseau, policy director at the Oakland Institute, a think tank based in Oakland, California, that focuses on social, economic and environmental issues.

Though Okomu denied their participation in the attack, violence and destruction are increasingly commonplace throughout the global palm oil industry. In November 2020, the Associated Press (AP) reported on incidents of sexual abuse, rape, human trafficking, child labor, and slavery. “Almost every plantation has problems related to labor,” said Hotler Parsaoran of the Sawit Watch, an Indonesian nonprofit that has investigated abuses in the palm oil sector. “But the conditions of female workers are far worse than men.”

Driving Deforestation

In addition to its role in human rights abuses, the palm oil industry is also a primary driver of deforestation, which not only exacerbates climate change by releasing into the atmosphere carbon that was previously safely stored in trees cut down to make room for plantations, but threatens wildlife and biodiversity. Parsaoran told the AP that ending these abuses is the responsibility of palm oil producers, multinational buyers, governments, and the banks that finance plantations. But there is another powerful group that supports this entire industry: consumers. As Martin Hickman reports for the Independent, unwitting consumers “may be contributing to the devastation of the wildlife-rich forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, where orangutans and other species face extinction as their habitat disappears.”

But WWF, a non-governmental environmental organization based in Switzerland, suggests that removing products with palm oil from our shopping lists isn’t necessarily the best course of action for concerned consumers. “Avoiding palm oil could have worse effects because it might take support away from companies that are trying hard to improve the situation,” the group says. “This could encourage companies to use other products that may have even more impact on the environment. Palm oil is by far the most efficient vegetable oil to grow as it takes less land to produce than other vegetable oils. Palm oil can be produced in a responsible manner that respects the environment and the communities where it is commonly grown.”

The group suggests that consumers should look for the RSPO label “to ensure you purchase products made with certified sustainable palm oil.” The certification was established by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which was formed in 2004 to promote the development of sustainable palm oil and is supported by 99 countries. However, the RSPO has been intensely criticized by environmentalists for the very thing it was supposed to prevent: rampant deforestation for palm oil production.

Greenwashing Environmental Destruction and Animal Cruelty

In July 2020, a study conducted by researchers at Tomsk State University in Russia and the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Austria showed satellite images revealing that palm oil production that received sustainable certification actually caused deforestation in Sumatra and Borneo that has threatened the habitats of several endangered mammals over the past three decades, including elephants, rhinos, tigers, and orangutans.

“We suggest that the phrase ‘sustainable palm oil’ must no longer be used to greenwash this tropical product’s reputation because it cannot certify that the production of palm oil comes from a non-recent degradation of tropical forests and endangered species habitats,” the study’s authors write. “In fact, we discovered that the current certified palm oil demand is almost fully supplied by those bases and concessions that, in less than three decades, replaced some of the most diverse tropical forests of the world and habitats of big mammals threatened by extinction.”

“Rapid and relentless deforestation for industrial-scale agriculture, particularly palm oil and timber plantations, leaves orangutans without food and shelter, exposing them to hunters who kill orangutans and capture their babies to sell as pets,” wrote Alan Knight, chief executive of International Animal Rescue, an animal rights nonprofit based in England, in 2018. “The apes are also in danger of coming into conflict with local people as they stray into villages and onto farmland in search of food. Fires started on an annual basis as part of land clearance operations in Indonesia are also responsible for the loss of thousands of acres of rainforest and the lives of hundreds if not thousands of orangutans.”

Ingredient Labels

Made from the oil palm plant, palm oil is the world’s most widely traded vegetable oil. It is found in about half of all consumer goods, including common foods like bread, cookies, crackers, doughnuts, peanut butter, and breakfast cereal, as well as everyday household products like soap and laundry detergent. Palm oil is also found in a host of cosmetics and beauty products like lipstick, mascara, body lotion, bubble bath, and anti-wrinkle creams. The list goes on. Making matters worse for ethical consumers is the fact that ingredient lists rarely say “palm oil,” but rather a specific ingredient or chemical that contains palm oil, like sodium lauryl sulfate, glyceryl stearate, stearic acid, and many others.

Boycotting Palm Oil

Boycotting palm oil isn’t the best tactic for ethical consumers. Not only would it be extremely difficult to avoid it altogether due to its ubiquitousness, but other options, like coconut oil, would also have the potential to destroy those very same environments currently plagued by oil palm plantations. Christopher Wille of the Rainforest Alliance told VICE that palm oil is “a bounteous and valuable crop [that is] highly productive compared to other oils, creates jobs and revenues and can be used in an amazing variety of products.” He argues that it’s not the oil palm plant that is the problem, but rather the way it’s grown. He says that ending deforestation, coupled with consumer pressure for “higher sustainable standards” and greater industry transparency about sourcing is the answer. “The hope is that companies will continue making changes to meet market demand. Some lobby for alternative oils, but all farming has a similar impact.”

Consumer pressure works. In 2020, the multinational food conglomerate Kellogg’s revised its palm oil policy after more than 780,000 concerned consumers signed an online petition. “If you care about the implications of palm oil,” writes Helen Nianias on VICE, “write emails to companies, ask if manufacturers are committed to zero deforestation. Be that guy. We all need to be that guy.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Joe Well

    Amazing there is no mention of the name “Nutella” which is mostly just palm oil and sugar.

    I am seriously curious how much this one product accounts for global palm oil usage. Apparently it accounts for 25% of all hazelnut usage worldwide.

    Yes, palm oil is in a lot of things, but I can’t think of anything besides Nutella which is mostly just palm oil repackaged.

    As for the consumer framing, it is very hard to avoid being snobby. The products that use palm oil, like Nutella, tend to be either flavorless or disgusting and designed for someone with the palate of a child. But of course they’re all cheaper so there’s a class dimension, too.

    At any rate, it would be insane to expect the kind of person who consumes a lot of this stuff to become an activist consumer. If you think about what you’re eating, you’re obviously not eating that.

      1. JonnyJames

        Even with “sustainable” palm oil, it sounds disgusting!

        Although it takes a few minutes, we can make nut butters (including hazelnut) in the food processor. No added oils, or garbage ingredients like in Nutella. Real sugar can be added if desired.

        1. Joe Well

          In Cancun there is a small chain of chocolate shops called Ah Cacao that sold a minimally processed Nutella competitor made with much less oil (coconut instead of palm), cacao powder, and ground hazelnuts instead of hazelnut powder, brown sugar and no milk. It had a very rich, dark chocolate flavor and was actually kind of satisfying unlike Nutella which like most highly processed foods always leave you feeling like you didn’t just eat anything.

          But it was a much more complicated food based on mouth feel and taste, as I said, very dark, and Nutella and company have done a lot to infantilize people’s pallets and make people like me sound like snobs. Going to be hard to break people from Nutella.

  2. Michael Mck

    Yes, don’t think coconut oil is better. Oil palm is the industrial model because it is so productive. It can produce more than twice as much oil per acre than coconut. If coconut were more productive it would be everywhere being the problem.
    The only sustainable solution for wanting solid fats, if you have a little space, is to raise your own fat pig from locally sourced waste which many markets and restraunts are drowning in. Of course the easy waste stream will not exist when everyone wants to use it and then it will take more work but will still be far better than an industrially farmed product.
    And don’t forget that canola and other temperate oils are also grown on what were once vibrant wild ecosystems too

    1. thoughtful person

      A few have written its the way the plant is grown not the play itself. I agree. I’ve long suspected that much of the organizational energy against palm in general (boycotts etc), are at least partially funded by groups who benefit from the use of a competing oil.

      Furthermore many other crops grown in the same countries have very similar issues. I’ve certainly heard about issues with cocoa production.

      Could it be that palm itself has a lower impact by some metrics, such as number of acres disturbed by farming activities? Per article:

      “WWF, a non-governmental environmental organization based in Switzerland, suggests that removing products with palm oil from our shopping lists isn’t necessarily the best course of action for concerned consumers. “Avoiding palm oil could have worse effects because it might take support away from companies that are trying hard to improve the situation,” the group says. “This could encourage companies to use other products that may have even more impact on the environment. Palm oil is by far the most efficient vegetable oil to grow as it takes less land to produce than other vegetable oils. Palm oil can be produced in a responsible manner that respects the environment and the communities where it is commonly grown.””

      I don’t cook much with Palm, but I’ve heard Palm is particularly useful for frying, and an alternative in soap making.

      We in wealthy industrialized countries often fail to criticize the same practices (certainly acres of land taken from forest and used for agriculture) that occur in our own countries. I recall hearing that Iowa was the most human terra formed state in the u.s. Don’t the ecosystems that were once in Iowa, and all their myriad inhabitants, deserve a chance to live as well as those in poor tropical countries?

      1. Michael Mck

        I would like to learn more about the agroecology of various tropical crops. I have heard that oil palm is relatively short yet needs full sun for full production and gets many bugs so is extra drenched in toxins while coffee and other crops can thrive in the high shade of organic coconuts.
        I suspect that there could be systems repacing monocultures where a dozen rows of a dozen useful species are mixed in with rows of “useless” native trees and patches of remnant forest.
        Such systems, like sustainable temperate farming, would need to be smaller scale and involve more educated and rooted farmers instead of a CEO and a bunch of grunts.
        All further conversion of native ecosystems to commerce must end yesterday!

    2. Michael Mck

      Another sustainable solution in my ecosystem could be using Tan Oak nuts (Notholithocarpus densiflora- actually a beech, not an oak). It grows abundantly in logged over conifer forests and produces fat rich seeds that were once a staple of the local diet.
      There are many underutilized oil extraction rigs from the local Cannabis boom that could make a tiny amount. To do it for real an industrial set up would be needed and an army of people would need to gather the nuts in fall. Some years the crops are small, others huge.
      Of course this is all fantasy since the price of the end product would internalize many more of the true costs of production than normal oils (what a “free” market is supposed to mean) so it could never displace more than a trivial amount of palm oil consumption in our current economic system.

  3. thousand points of green

    There is a wild palm tree growing as part of the forest of several million ( at least) acres of forest land in Brazil, called babassu nut. I don’t know if any of it is planted nowadays, or all still harvested from wild free-growing trees. It is already used in some products and one wonders if it could do the same things as plantation palm oil and displace some plantation palm oil from some of its markets and uses. Here is an article about a babassu-based business in Brazil buying babassu nuts from numbers of country-living Brazilians who gather the nuts for resale to aggregators.

    Here are a couple of articles about aspects of the poor women who make their living gathering and breaking babassu nuts to extract the kernels for sale for further processing, refining and use.

    The putative impact of “ethical consumers” in the teeth of anti-ethical business and anti-ethical government seems forlornly derisory, but in the teeth of government and mainstream business anti-ethics, what else is there? Perhaps a few million “ethical consumers” able and willing to pay a higher price for non-fraudulent actual eco-tolerable fats and oils and the products they go into might be just enough to keep some ethical side-stream businesses just enough in existence to semi-protect just enough working land and people to keep lifeways and life-species from going extinct.

  4. LY

    The biggest importers of palm oil are India and China, and it’s mostly for food. Increasing food prices for those countries is a hard ask.

    Palm oil is also used for biofuel. I wonder if it’s as bad as corn ethanol.

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