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Palm oil: Future biofuel or ecological disaster?

April 24, 2012

From pizza to biofuel, palm oil is used in a range of products. And demand is growing. But forests are often torn down in the rush to boost palm oil production, with disastrous consequences for humans and the climate.

A digger stands on a cleared plot of forestland (Foto: ddp images/AP Photo/Ed Wray)
Vast tracts of rainforest land are cleared for palm oil plantationsImage: AP Photo/Ed Wray

It was a story that sparked controversy and became one of Colombia’s most famous land restitution cases. In 2009, farmers living on “Las Pavas,” an hacienda nestled away in the Colombian countryside about 300 kilometers north of Bogotá, were taken by surprise when riot police arrived on their land and forced them off at gunpoint.

The entire village was torn down, including the families’ homes and their hard-earned yucca, squash, plantain and cacao crops. All that remained were a few scattered tree stumps as the displaced villagers were resettled to the next town.

The story surrounding the government’s land restitution program and the Las Pavas incident is a complicated one. The 123 farming families who were evicted from their land had lived and worked on it for more than ten years, and they had applied for the right to become official landowners under law. But soon after, Colombian company Daabon purchased 1,100 hectares of the Las Pavas land to cultivate palm oil plants. A long legal battle followed.

Palm oil fruits (Foto: CC/Cayambe)
Palm oil fruits grow well in steamy, tropical weatherImage: CC/Cayambe

Felipe Guerrero, Daabon’s sustainability manager, says his company did nothing illegal. “We know that we have a significant responsibility to the local population. Our goal is to work together with the people.”

International Condemnation

The Las Pavas case gained international attention, forcing European customers of Daabon to act. British cosmetics company The Body Shop, which bought its palm oil from Daabon, cut off all business ties with its Colombian partner soon after. Amid increasing criticism, Daabon sold the Las Pavas land in 2011.  

Alnatura, a German organic food products company, sent its own analyst to Colombia to assess the situation.

“Legal measures alone won’t provide a conclusive solution to the problem,” agricultural expert Karl Müller-Sämann said in his report, arguing that Colombian authorities too should be held responsible.

'The locals rarely see any profit'

Yet Las Pavas is just one example in a series of conflicts between palm oil companies and rural communities. The German development agency “Bread for the World” recently published a study examining a similar case in Northern Sumatra in Indonesia.

  A palm oil plantation
Global palm oil production has doubled over the last 15 yearsImage: CC/a_rabin

“Local communities usually don’t know their rights. The residents should be informed about the plans of palm oil companies and they should be involved in them, under the principle of informed prior consent,” said Karen Neumeyer from “Bread for the World.”

She added that farmers are hired to work on the new plantations under poor conditions. “They often don’t even receive the minimum wage and they don’t have any insurance. The locals rarely see any profit from the worldwide demand for palm oil,” Neumeyer said.

Palm oil: cheap and versatile

With demand soaring, palm oil producers such as Indonesian company Sinar Mas or the biggest producer - Singaporean company Wilmar - are expanding rapidly.
In 2010, 50 million tons of palm oil were produced worldwide, a number that has doubled within just 15 years. The biggest palm oil producers in the world are Indonesia and Malaysia, responsible for  90 percent of the global supply.

Palm oil is popular because it is cheaper than other forms of plant oil, and the fruit from the palm can be used in for a variety of purposes. The precious commodity is found in nearly half of all products found on the shelves in European supermarkets. Only about 5 percent of the global palm oil supply is used to produce biofuel but that share is expected to grow, and fast.

A gas station
The EU hopes to ramp up the use of biofuels, thanks in large part to palm oilImage: Harald Tittel/dapd

The European Union aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020, partly by demanding that 10 percent of vehicles be fueled by biofuels.

A growing threat to the climate

But the booming demand for palm oil has created environmental problems in countries where it is produced. Entire swathes of rainforest land are razed to make way for palm oil plantations. Over the last 20 years, 4.2 million hectares of rainforest land were cleared for palm fields in Indonesia alone. That corresponds to the size of Denmark.

Palm plants need large amounts of water to thrive, and they deplete the soil of minerals and moisture. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers also pollute the groundwater and rivers. “The plantations end up destroying entire eco-systems where palm oil is produced,” Klaus Schenck from the NGO “Rainforest Rescue said. “And that destroys biodiversity.“   

A woman bites into a piece of cheese pizza
Palm oil is found in half of all products in European supermarketsImage: dapd/Timur Emek

The climate, too, ends up suffering. Trees store large amounts of carbon dioxide, but when they are cut down for the palm plantations, their CO2 is released into the atmosphere. That has led to a startling statistic: the palm oil industry accounts for 20 percent  of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

 There are alternatives

Daabon has found an eco-friendly and sustainable way to produce palm oil: the company does not clear forest land or plant monocultures, and it has stopped using pesticides on its plantations near the popular coastal city of Santa Marta.   

And though demand is exploding, there are clear alternatives to palm oil production.
“Contrary to what the industry says, palm oil can be replaced,”  Klaus Schenck said. “In Germany, you have oil extracted from sunflowers or rape-seed plants. t’s already being used in some cases,” he said.

And at the end of the day, it is the consumer who carries the responsibility for how and where palm oil is produced.

Author: Brigitta Moll /ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar