The violent costs of the global palm oil boom

Just after nine o’clock on a Tuesday morning in June, an environmental activist named Bill Kayong was shot and killed while sitting in his pickup truck, waiting for a traffic light to change in the Malaysian city of Miri, on the island of Borneo. Kayong had been working with a group of villagers who were trying to reclaim land that the local government had transferred to a Malaysian palm-oil company. A few days after the murder, the police identified Stephen Lee Chee Kiang, a director and major shareholder of the company, Tung Huat Niah Plantation, as a suspect in the crime, but Kiang flew to Australia before he could be questioned by authorities. (Three other individuals were eventually charged in the case.) Around the world, environmental and human-rights activists added Kayong’s death to the tally of violent incidents connected to the production of palm oil, which has quietly become one of the most indispensable substances on Earth.

The World Wildlife Fund says that half of the items currently on American grocery-store shelves contain some form of palm oil. (“You’re soaking in it,” went the old tagline of the palm-oil-based dish detergent Palmolive.) The move away from trans fats in processed foods was a particular boon for the industry—semi-solid at room temperature, palm oil emerged as an ideal swap-in for the partially hydrogenated oils formerly used to enhance the texture, flavor, and shelf life of products like cookies and crackers. Since 2002, when a report from the National Academy of Sciences found a link between trans fats and heart disease, palm-oil imports to the U.S. have risen four hundred and forty-six per cent, and have topped a million metric tons in recent years. In addition to its widespread use in processed foods, the oil palm plant, Elaeis guineensis, lurks in one form or another in many cosmetics and personal-care products, such as shampoos, soaps, and lipsticks. It’s also used in animal feeds and industrial materials, and, increasingly, as a biofuel.

Elaeis guineensis is native to West Africa, and while its cultivation has spread recently in Central and South America and across equatorial Africa, eighty-five per cent of palm oil produced today comes from Indonesia or Malaysia. Rising palm-oil exports have helped both countries make enormous economic strides in the past few decades, but the growth has come at a cost: deforestation rates in both places have been listed among the highest in the world. The habitat destruction brought about by palm-oil production has helped push scores of the region’s species, including orangutans and Sumatran elephants, rhinos, and tigers, to the brink of extinction. And, mostly thanks to palm-oil production, Indonesia can boast some of the world’s highest levels of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Yet it is violence — against local populations, farmers, and activists — that has human-rights groups closely watching the palm-oil industry. The reports are often sad echoes of one another… Read the full story at The New Yorker.

Photo: Families hold photos of relatives killed in fights with palm oil company Grupo Dinant in Honduras

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