Sustainable Palm Oil Can Be Achieved, The Problem is Corporate Greed

Sustainable Palm Oil Can Be Achieved, The Problem is Corporate Greed

Over the course of human history, oil has always symbolized progress. From the story of Elisha and the widow of Zarephath in Biblical times down to modern usage, oil has somewhat always been used to characterize abundance and forward movement. Thus, you have expressions such as “oil of progress” and “good oil”. Generally, when we say oil these days, especially in a commercial setting, it usually refers to crude oil; the so-called black gold; the life-line of lots of countries and a staple in the world economic scene. 

Regardless of all this though, where I come from, when one says ‘oil’, the first thing that comes to mind is mmanu or palm oil. While Nigeria is a crude-oil producing state; the term ‘oil’ is first associated with palm-oil in almost every community in my country. I discussed the reasons for this reverence of palm oil with my father when I travelled home recently and I came away with the impression that while vastly popular, crude oil is regarded by the average Nigerian as property of the government and too laden with dead fishes in our waters and failing crops in our farmlands. 

Crude oil here is seen as neither for the people, nor of the people but on the other hand, palm oil belongs to the people and their native communities. The palm trees here are grown by the people, and in my community, harvested on days stipulated for same by communal regulations. The palm fruits are processed by the people and the palm oil is extracted at the local palm mills and sold by the people in the local markets. Unlike the case of crude oil, my people get to manage any proceeds of sales and not the government. 

Palm Oil Can Be Sustainable, The Problem is Corporate Greed
A man working at a palm oil mill on the outskirts of town Doaula, Cameroon. Credit: Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR

All across the globe, the palm tree is recognized as one of the most maintainable trees to plant (both economically and environmentally) but thousands of miles away, specifically in the Amazon forest, reports have begun to show that the quest for more palm oil has become the undoing of forests and entire ecosystems. Forests are being cleared to make way to grow palm tree plantations, and staggering number animals are being displaced from their natural habitats. According to Rainforest Rescue, over 27 million hectares have been cleared worldwide by corporations seeking to produce palm oil to meet the rising demand in the international market. 

Related Post: Are Your Favorite Fashion Brands Sourcing ‘Natural’ Fibres That Are Destroying Ancient and Endangered Forests?

So, how did this happen? How did the palm tree, one of the most sustainable plants there is, turn around to be a source of such terror for the environment? The answer here is very simple; corporate greed. And to explain this answer, let us first consider what palm oil (and its extracts) is used for and secondly; let’s also consider who has control over its production and the industry.


Aerial views of growing oil palm plantation in near Douala, Cameroon. Credit: Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR

In the last decade, palm oil has increasingly grown as the substitute of choice to other petroleum-based extracts. One of the biggest milestones towards this was the decision of the US government in 2007 that American automobiles would run on vegetable-oil based bio-fuel. This decision, alongside others, signified a pivot of sorts and palm oil moved from a plant product (used as a food ingredient and raw material in certain cosmetic products), to a major industrial raw material in no time.

With this shift in the importance of palm oil came a corresponding shift in the major players of the industry. Multinational corporations began a literal gold rush to grab as much of this ‘new palm industry’ as possible. This rush in turn dragged along with itself, the desperate move to grab as much land as possible to cultivate palm trees. (I shall not fail to point out here that the palm tree actually cannot grow in commercial quantities in most of these countries who now seem to have acquired change of hearts after having viciously attacked the environment through their innumerable industrial innovations.)

Related Post: Why You Should Eliminate Palm Oil From Your Diet?

The result of all these has been one of the most unprecedented onslaughts against the environment that the world has ever seen. Deforestation, along with its inimical effect on biodiversity has literally become the order of the day.  

Even worse for the environment is the amount of bush burning that has had to take place. As it turns out, the carbon dioxide absorbed by trees are trapped in the soil. With the burning and clearing of these huge swarths of previously untouched forests, massive amounts of greenhouse gases have been released into the atmosphere. According to NASA, the clearing of Indonesia’s forests contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums. Clearly, the environment is further damaged for it. Not only has this mad rush to cut down trees in order to plant more trees to save the environment destroyed the ability to absorb Co2 in the future, it has done much worse by releasing the Co2 that had already been successfully trapped in by these trees. This makes you question the rationale behind the conversion to plant-based fuels; was it really in the interest of the environment? Is it really any better than the damage already done? 

If to “save the environment”, we have to destroy this much of the environment, then it stands to reason that the decision might not have been taken with the environment as the priority. The answer perhaps lies in the fact that the American agricultural industry had spent billions lobbying for just such a decision by the government. As the writer in this NY Times article pointed out, “unsaid, but clear to anyone paying attention, was that it would also please America’s agriculture industry, which had been lobbying for ethanol and advanced biofuel research for years”. 

Two men are traditionally processed palm oil fruit, the oil will immediately be sold and used personally. Credit: Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR

A way out here may be to borrow a leaf from my society and other similar societies who have been producing palm oil for millennia. Corporations may argue that these small operations are not economically wise and cannot meet the immense demands of the market. Having spoken with smallholders in Nigeria and followed the value chain, I argue to the contrary. You see, these smallholders have the capacity to meet any demands that their local markets may throw at them for no other reason that often, the well-being of their families and communities depend on it. A clue to this is the fact that 70 percent of the world’s food supply is produced by smallholder farmers. It is not a stretch then to imagine them producing a similar percentage of the raw material need for fuel. 

They may lack the efficiency of multinationals but they have the dedication often associated with small business. But most of all, they have a consideration for the wellbeing of the environment which these multinationals have proven not to care for. 

The multinationals might be bigger and better, but at what cost? 

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Title image credit: Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR.

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