West Africa: We All Need an Oil Change

book review

Chloe King applauds an exposé of damage caused by palm oil production.

Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything and Endangered the World, by Jocelyn Zuckerman, Hurst, £20.00

Palm oil is in everything. Going by dozens of different names, from the unpronounceable palmitoyl oxostearamide to the seemingly innocuous 'vegetable oil', it has made its way into our favorite snacks, shampoos, detergents and fuel tanks in the form of biodiesel.

Producing more oil per acre than any other crop, palm oil's efficiency and versatility - it is shelf stable, semi-solid at room temperature, odourless and colourless - is what makes it so ubiquitous. Up to 50 per cent of packaged food contains it.

Yet with recent consumer campaigns urging us to shake our fists at companies that cut down virgin rainforest to allow its cultivation, palm oil's secret is out, although the depths that this dark trade is prepared to sink to are only just beginning to come to light.

Jocelyn Zuckerman's Planet Palm is a harsh critique of a global industry that has embedded itself into our lives. Troubling, thoroughly researched and thrilling from beginning to end, her book traverses four continents in a broad sweep of the history, power and politics behind palm oil.

The problem at heart is a chronicle of capitalism. From William Lever's monopolization of the dense jungles of West Africa leading to his title as the king of soap production and creator of Unilever, conquest and capitalism are tied irrevocably together by the rise in palm oil production.

Modern-day narratives of poor farmers whose land was stolen by or sold to palm oil plantations mirror those of more than a century ago, when colonial conquerors pillaged, raped and murdered their way into dense jungles and forced landholders to serve the cause that would come to destroy them.

Just as wealthy nations built their fortunes on the exploits of colonialism, so colonialism built its fortune on palm oil.

Zuckerman brings to life stories of indigenous communities across the globe, both past and present, whose lives have been uprooted by the money-hungry industry. Just as wealthy nations built their fortunes on the exploits of colonialism, so colonialism built its fortune on palm oil. Ironically, a defence of the largest users of palm oil - companies such as PepsiCo, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Nestle, and L'Oreal - is to label conservation groups as 'eco-colonialists', bent on depriving small farmers of development opportunities in the name of conservation.

This argument is not without its complexities. Zuckerman does a good job balancing such industry defences with facts. From conversations with small farmers in Indonesia who earn less than $6 a day to cataloguing the immense wealth that has accrued for businesses and politicians who clear the way for plantations, the industry rarely serves those who suffer the most.

Palm oil becomes its own colonizer, driving communities from Brazil to Indonesia to desperation caused by deforestation and the loss of traditional livelihoods. In one example of the powerful interests at stake, in 2016 France dropped plans to levy a tax on palm oil in response to Indonesia's threats to execute a French citizen being held on drug trafficking charges in Jakarta. This was not to ease the plight of millions of small farmers across the country, but because the wealthiest and most powerful would suffer if the tax were imposed.

Beyond its roots in colonialism and human rights abuses - from child labour, to infertility and cancer rates among workers, to the death and disappearance of journalists who tried to expose these tragedies - palm oil is at the very centre of our fight for climate justice. Tropical forests house more than half of the world's biodiversity and absorb 10 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

Zuckerman spends time with a host of characters fighting to save these ecosystems, from Alfred Brownell, a Liberian lawyer and environmental activist trying to keep palm oil at bay, to Acehnese activist Rudi Putra, who runs a team of private rangers to safeguard Indonesia's dwindling forests.

Some 15 million acres of Indonesian forest were lost between 2000 and 2012, driving hundreds of species to extinction.

The destruction of peatland is also becoming more common. In the words of Ian Singleton, founder of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme: 'If you destroy all of Indonesia's peat swamps, Planet Earth becomes uninhabitable. It's that serious.'

Depressingly, demand for palm oil is increasing. Global production has quadrupled since 1995, and the industry is expected to be worth $88 billion by 2022. Accounting for a third of the world's vegetable oil consumption, palm oil continues to line the pockets of the wealthy.

Even efforts such as the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a certification scheme, has done little to curtail the industry. Sixteen years after its inception only 19 per cent of the world's supply is certificated. External audits have shown that RSPO-certified members are rarely forced to change their practices if found in violation of its code, or if they are, they simply quit the group rather than implement reforms.

Zuckerman provides evidence that the palm oil industry has driven biodiversity destruction, exacerbated climate change, led to obesity and encouraged corruption, but has it done any good? Would a substitute be any better - especially when alternative oils such as coconut or soya bean would need four to ten times more land to produce the same amount of oil?

Particularly in the discussion around global obesity, a more nuanced understanding of places such as Indonesia, where palm oil makes up 94 per cent of cooking oil usage, may be needed in assessing alternatives.

Planet Palm will and should enrage you. Yet, as with so many battles fought for the planet, it is hard to believe that individuals can make a difference. Certainly, the handful of innovators currently creating genetically identical palm oil in labs around the world may attest otherwise.

But Zuckerman ends on a more positive note, outlining a successful campaign by two Michigan Girl Scouts who had a more lasting impact by forcing major companies to reduce the palm oil content in their cookies.

Like the indigenous communities that safeguard some 80 per cent of global biodiversity, it is time we paid attention to the people capable of making a difference.

In 1962, Rachel Carson's ground-breaking book Silent Spring launched an environmental movement as much for what it exposed as for who it empowered. The consumer, armed with knowledge, made more informed choices and shared the news with others.

It is no secret that palm oil is in everything; perhaps the most shocking aspect of this book is just how many powers are at play to keep us ignorant of that fact.

But if 2020, and the changes the pandemic has wrought, have taught us anything, it is that the powers that be are not unshakable. And shake them we must if we are to heal our planet.

Chloe King is Project and Communications Manager, Solimar International.

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