As palm oil plantations have spread from Indonesia and Malaysia to South America and Central Africa, massive deforestation and loss of wildlife have followed. In some cases, environmentalists have risked their lives to come out against palm oil companies like Wilmar International, one of the world’s largest agricultural firms, says Zuckerman.
Efforts to police the industry have been unreliable. “In theory, at least, the palm-oil industry has committed resources to monitoring itself and preventing abuses: a number of multinational companies and N.G.O.s working in the sector came together in 2004 to establish the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (R.S.P.O.),” reports Zuckerman. “But the organization’s record has been spotty, at best, and even a R.S.P.O. representative acknowledged to me that the process it uses to certify palm-oil producers is ‘not perfect.’”
Earlier this year, environmentalist Bill Kayong, who had been working with villagers to stop the construction of a palm plantation, was shot in Malaysia while sitting in his truck at a stoplight. In 2012, human-rights lawyer Antonio Trejo Cabrera, who had won some cases against the Honduran palm oil company Grupo Dinant, was also murdered. The list goes on, says Zuckerman.
More than half the items on grocery store shelves contain some kind of palm oil, according to the World Wildlife Fund. “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,” writes Zuckerman. Palm oil also shows up in wide range of cosmetics and personal-care products.
“There’s an awful lot at stake,” Nigel Sizer, the president of the New York City-based Rainforest Alliance, which works with palm-oil producers in Indonesia, Latin America, and Papua New Guinea, told Zuckerman. “Massive investments in plantations. The infrastructure involved in processing. You get in the way of that, and you’re going to be dealt with in the most brutal way imaginable.”
Click here to read a Q&A with Zuckerman about the dangers facing palm-oil activists. You can find more of Zuckerman’s reporting for FERN on palm oil in the “Oil Barrens“ and “Children Left Vulnerable by World Bank Amid Push for Development.”