Murdered in the name of palm oil: a Q&A with Jocelyn Zuckerman

A palm oil worker, Sumatra, Indonesia.

Palm oil is the secret ingredient in, well, nearly everything. From dish soap to peanut butter, the oil shows up in cleaning products and cosmetics and something like half the food items in U.S. grocery stores. Every year, environmental activists risk their lives to stop the mass spread of oil-palm plantations across the equator, from Indonesia and Malaysia to Cameroon and Honduras. The crop is the source of mass deforestation and pollution, and also of a rising number of assassinations, as companies, governments and hired hands collude to take out activists standing in their way. FERN partnered with The New Yorker on “Violent costs of the global palm-oil boom,” in which writer Jocelyn C. Zuckerman investigates the deaths of these activists. FERN’s Kristina Johnson spoke to Zuckerman about the danger behind this ubiquitous commodity.    

When did you realize that so many people were being killed in the service of palm oil?

In June, the NGO Global Witness came out with a report, “On Dangerous Ground,” about the killings of environmental activists around the world, and it specifically called out the palm oil industry. I figured most Americans knew about conflict related to timber and minerals, but I didn’t think anybody in this country would expect to see palm oil at the top of that report. And then two days later, I read about Bill Kayong, an activist I mention in the story, being shot at a traffic light in Malaysia. Just a couple weeks ago, two more activists were murdered in Honduras, followed by another palm-oil related murder in Borneo.

In your reporting, did you meet activists who feared for their lives?

In 2015, I met with Berta Cáceres, a Honduran who had traveled to Washington, D.C. to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize. She was fighting against the construction of dams, some of which were intended to move water to palm oil plantations. We talked about how she had received death threats, and she was murdered earlier this year. I also spent some time this spring with a Guatemalan activist named Saul Paau, who told me that he felt like he could be targeted any day. He said he had children, but didn’t want to tell me how old they were. He never puts them on Facebook. He moves around at night, because he’s gotten threats.

As an American journalist, do you ever feel endangered during your reporting?

I think you have a little protection as an American journalist, because no one wants an international incident. But you know, guys with guns … I’m not sure they’re always thinking about ramifications. The danger is mostly for locals—journalists as well as activists. But I was supposed to go to Honduras about a year ago to do some reporting on palm oil. At that point, it was the murder capital of the world (El Salvador now holds that title). And I have to admit, I was up in the night thinking, “I have two kids. I don’t want to be killed.” It was for research, rather than a specific assignment, so I ultimately canceled that trip.

Do the governments in these countries share the blame for these murders?

I think in so many of these places the palm oil companies are in cahoots with the government. There is a lot of impunity. The companies are supposed to have permits to only plant a certain area, but the next thing you know they’ve gone way beyond where they were supposed to, because there is so much corruption and money slipped under the table.

What do average citizens in these countries—not just company employees or activists—think about palm oil? Are they aware of the environmental costs and that people’s lives are endangered?

I think people are aware of the violence, because a lot of this is happening in rural areas, where everyone knows each other. And these stories make the local news. There were apparently 2,000 people at the memorial service for Bill Kayong, the slain Malaysian activist. I also think people know about the environmental costs. People from Liberia, Sumatra, and Guatemala have told me the same stories about having lost their farms and forests and seen their rivers polluted by agricultural chemicals.

I interviewed two women in Borneo who are palm farmers. But basically everyone is an palm farmer there. Some work on the plantations. Others, like these women, are independent. They sell their fruit to Wilmar, the world’s largest palm-oil trader. The women were making a decent living, but they also said that when they were kids the climate was temperate. Now everyone has air conditioners and fans because deforestation has led to higher temperatures, and the air is often filled with smoke from land being burned to make way for palm. The women used to get rambutan and durian and other fruits from the forests, and they would hunt wild boar and get fish from the streams. But now there’s no forest to get food from. Everyone eats processed food from the store.

Do local people think that’s a fair tradeoff?

That old life sounds pretty idyllic, but the women told me that some of their friends have three or four cars now. I think they’re torn. You drive around these countries, and it is oil palm for miles and miles. It’s heartbreaking. There are oil-palm trees right up to the runway in Kuala Lumpur.

What responsibility do you think American consumers have in all of this?

That’s a hard one. In food, at least, you have some idea when palm oil is in a product. But for cosmetics and personal-care products, the oil-palm fruit goes through multiple refining and fractionating processes. It’s hard to recognize it on the label. I was on the website of Tom’s of Maine, which you think of as this natural, minimalist company. But I found at least 20 ingredients that were derived from palm oil or palm-kernel oil. There needs to be more coverage of the industry and its fallout. But most Americans don’t know about the problem. A lot of the oil palm is grown in very poor countries that are remote and without a lot of visibility to the public, so companies can get away with a lot.

Do you think there’s been any improvement on these plantations?

In some cases. I think that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which was set up to push these companies toward better practices, is worth something. When I was recently in Borneo, the employees at a Wilmar plantation showed me things they’d changed since joining RSPO a decade or so ago. They’ve provided masks and boots for workers to wear when they apply pesticides and fertilizers. And they’d built a school, which was really impressive. Obviously, that plantation is one of their showpieces that they take visitors to see, but it was beyond anything I’d found on other plantations. The worker housing was also very nice. Now again, Wilmar is huge, and it buys palm oil from everyone. So while the company’s own plantations may be up to snuff, their suppliers’ might not be. (In fact, the company was just called out by Amnesty International for using child labor.)

How reliable are the audits that RSPO conducts on these companies?

One guy who works for Wilmar told me that companies know when the RSPO auditors are coming, so they clean things up for that week. But then they have 51 weeks where they can do whatever they want. So it’s a little bit of a game. I also know that the auditors often stay in housing that’s owned by the companies they’re meant to be auditing, which could obviously pose a conflict of interest.

Read Zuckerman’s other FERN stories on palm oil, Oil Barrens and “Children Left Vulnerable by World Bank Amid Push for Development.”

Photo of man harvesting palm fruit by Paul Hilton