Palm Oil Fallout: A Q&A with Jocelyn Zuckerman

Palm oil has fast become one of the most common ingredients in processed food, and yet most Americans have no idea that most of it is grown on vast plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia.  The World Bank has lent more than a billion dollars to governments and corporations to develop these plantations, bulldozing rainforest and displacing tens of thousands of people along the way. In our story, published in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and Huffington Post, writer Jocelyn Zuckerman traveled to a remote outpost of Indonesia to uncover the hidden costs of this cheap fat. What she saw left her devastated by the level of destruction both to people and to the land. Here she talks with FERN’s Kristina Johnson about the web of World Bank funding and corporate corruption that has brutally upended indigenous lives and laid waste to rainforests in Indonesia and around the globe.

Your story focuses on the trauma of a young boy named Revan, after his family was kicked off their land to make way for the expansion of a palm oil plantation. How did you find him?

It wasn’t easy. There was a feeling of fear and intimidation in these displaced communities that made people jittery about letting us talk to their kids. Once night started to fall, people would say, “You have to get out of here. The guards are going to come.” Plus, it took hours to get to the concession, where people lived, because the roads were so bad. You would get lost in the endless maze of palm trees. I left that first day without having spent a decent amount of time with any kids, but I knew I needed to go back. So I did, and on my very last day in Sumatra, I just happened to show a report on palm oil that I had on my computer to a group of villagers, who recognized Revan from the cover. “Oh, he lives right over there!” they said.

Did you ever worry that you were putting Revan in danger by talking to him?

No. I felt like we were in his house, with his dad, so if any guards came, they weren’t going to do anything more than shoo us off. Also, the tribal elder said it was okay for us to talk to him, and his father encouraged us, too. Their family is basically marooned in the middle of this endless sea of palm. They are angry and feel like nobody cares. They wanted their story told.

Palm oil is used in at least of half of products on U.S. shelves, from toothpaste to peanut butter. Why is it suddenly in everything?

It had been used in cosmetics for a while, but in the States it started to show up in a dramatic way in food back in 2008, when companies began to remove trans fats. Palm oil gives the same mouthfeel as trans fats, so companies subbed it in. It’s also really cheap to produce, in large part because it’s produced on stolen land, with low-wage labor—some people would argue slave labor. It yields a lot of oil per acre, more so than any other oil crop. You could say that makes it somewhat more sustainable, since, in theory, you don’t have to cut down as much rainforest to plant it.

Supporters argue that the palm-oil industry is helping poor countries develop. What do you think?

It’s true that the economies of Malaysia and Indonesia have grown immensely since the countries have gone all in with palm. But I fear that the plantations are a good thing for a few people, but they come at a great cost for many others. One of the founders of the Wilmar Corporation, which owned the palm-oil plantation in Jambi that I write about, is the richest man in Malaysia (the other is the 12th-richest in Indonesia). But the indigenous people who are most affected don’t just source food from the land; they source their medicines and their building materials. They lose everything when these plantations come in.

Do you think the World Bank is aware of the possible fallout for families like Revan’s when they fund these projects?

I don’t think they’re clueless. In 2009, then–World Bank President Robert Zoellick actually put a moratorium on funding for palm oil because there were so many complaints about the sector from around the globe. And the Bank does assessments ahead of time on all their projects—though not everyone agrees that those studies are comprehensive, especially when it comes to looking at how children are affected.

I tend to think that a lot of the problem stems from human error and ambition. There is so much money involved and so much pressure to push these projects through. But it’s not just the World Bank; governments also want to rush these projects if it means infusions of cash into their economies.  

What is being done to improve the palm-oil industry?

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was established in 2004, when Greenpeace and other advocacy groups began calling out the industry for environmental and other abuses. Now the group includes some 2,000 growers and traders, as well as the Unilevers of the world, all trying to work toward a certification regime that will ensure they aren’t cutting down rainforests, displacing indigenous populations, allowing child labor, and otherwise trampling on human rights. The Roundtable has pushed for “free, prior, and informed consent,” which means actually talking to the people on the ground and getting their permission before leasing land to these different companies.

Is there any concern about having industry involvement in the Roundtable?

There’s a lot of concern that the certification process has been watered down and that the whole organization is in the industry’s pocket. For instance, Wilmar Corporation signed a big proclamation in 2013 that it wouldn’t commit human rights abuses or cut down “high-conservation areas” on any of its plantations. But it is responsible for 40 percent of the global trade in palm oil, so even if its own plantations are clean—and we know from this Jambi case and others that it has a pattern of selling off properties that have been shown to be at fault—there is a big concern, documented by organizations like the Forest Peoples Programme and Friends of the Earth, that it continues to source from plantations that engage in these practices.

How important is having American pressure on this issue?

I think it could be huge. But most Americans aren’t even aware that palm oil is in so many of the products they consume. And it’s happening on the other side of the world. You have to fly to remote areas and then drive for hours on bad roads to even get to these communities. The atrocities aren’t happening in full view even in the countries themselves, much less to the public over here.

When you left Revan’s family and returned to the United States, what went through your mind?

To be honest, I came back wondering if I could continue to report on stories like this. As a journalist, you think, “Is this about my own ambition to tell a good story? Can I really have an impact?” But ultimately, I do believe it’s worthwhile to do this kind of reporting. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, I lived in a little village right on the Equator, which is prime palm-oil territory. I remember my students asking me if I had a shamba, a farm, and when I said no, they were like, But where do you get your food? These people didn’t even have shoes. All they had was their land. I’ve had dreams about going back there and finding that it’s all been turned into palm oil. This issue feels personal to me. It makes me so incredibly angry to see palm oil taking over the world.