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The Dirty Business of Producing Palm Oil: Climate Change, Toxic Waste and Child Labor


February 19, 2015

From plantations to processing to consumer products, this three part series examines the impacts of industrial palm oil on the environment, human rights and wildlife conservation.

Last week we explored some of the initial impacts of palm oil plantation expansion on tropical rainforests and the people and wildlife who depend on them. This week we are focusing on the long term impacts of palm oil production, including the effects of tropical deforestation on climate change, toxic waste pollution from processing plants, and forced labor at palm oil plantations.

Tropical rainforests are considered natural carbon sinks. They breathe in millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year, removing it from the atmosphere and storing it in their trunks, roots and soil. Every year nearly 30% of the carbon we release from burning fossil fuels is taken out of the atmosphere and sequestered by the world’s forests. When forests are cleared and burned to make way for palm oil plantations, they release their stored carbon back in to the atmosphere contributing to global climate change.

According to Rainforest Action Network, “Worldwide, tropical deforestation contributes as many emissions to climate change as those from the global transportation sector. That’s equivalent to the pollutants coming out of the engine of every car, truck, ship, plane and train on the planet.”

As a major contributor to climate change, deforestation caused by palm oil plantations not only impacts local communities, but the entire world.

Locally, communities not only lose access to water and land resources, but are subjected to the environmental degradation that comes along with monocrop cultivation, including soil and water contamination from pesticide pollution and soil erosion.


Additionally, the palm oil manufacturing process itself is highly polluting. From the book “Grabbing Power: The New Struggles for Land, Food and Democracy in Northern Honduras” by Tanya M Kerssen: “Palm oil manufacturing generates three main kinds of waste: solid waste (fibers, shells and empty fruit bunches); liquid waste (generated in the oil extraction process); and air emissions (smoke from boilers and incinerators).

The combination of liquid waste with cooling water generates what is known as palm oil mill effluent (POME), a substance that may be dumped in nearby waterways, killing marine life and contaminating the water for drinking and bathing.

Alternately, POME is stored in open lagoons, generating a bio-gas that contains about 65% methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. The incineration of empty fruit bunches (EFBs) also emits particulates into the atmosphere, and the indiscriminate dumping of EFBs causes additional methane emissions, as the plant matter decomposes.”

Despite the ecological risks, governments of developing nations around the world are eager to attract foreign investors, whose development projects often come with promises of jobs and security.


In the Global Witness blog, “Palm oil, poverty and ‘imperialism’: A reality check from Liberia,” 2006 Goldman Prize winner Silas Siakor describes how the promises of sustainable jobs and development often fall short:

“As Director of Liberia’s Sustainable Development Institute I have seen up-close the true impact of palm oil, and I can tell you it is more often the problem, not the solution. When Liberia opened up to investment after a devastating civil war, the government struck land deals with companies without the consent of the people who lived on the land, and many communities received a pittance in return for it. In rural parts of Liberia, communities complain that their food is now scarcer than it was before the palm oil companies moved in, and that fertilizers have polluted their fishing ponds and drinking water.”

A report from Grain also shows that employment generated by plantations often goes to foreign migrants, not locals, and that most of the jobs are seasonal, poorly paid and dangerous.

A report from Rainforest Action Network shows that human and labor rights violations run rampant on palm oil plantations. Laborers often experience “restrictions on their freedom of movement, retention of their passports and other valuable documents, indebtedness to labor brokers and delayed or unpaid wages.”

In fact, in 2012 the US Department of Labor listed palm oil as one of the most notorious industries for forced labor and child labor. Rainforest Action Network has likened the situations faced by laborers in Indonesia and Malaysia to “modern-day slavery.” The report also estimates that in Malaysia alone between 72,000 and 200,000 children work on palm oil plantations.


The Guardian article, “Palm oil risk to Africa as prospectors eye swaths of land,” describes how plantations not only fail to deliver on the promise of jobs, but also hamper food security in the long run:

“The risks involved in transferring the land to large monoculture plantations are significant. While some jobs are created on the new plantations, palm oil production requires fewer workers than if the land were used for traditional small-scale palm oil businesses and growing food. By transferring the land to the exclusive propagation of oil palm, areas are losing the ability to grow food for themselves.”

1999 Goldman Prize winner Samuel Nguiffo echoed that sentiment in Foreign Policy’s article “When Wall Street Went to Africa:”

“At the same time Cameroon is giving away the country to export-oriented agricultural ventures, the country is importing $600 million of food each year. The world is upside down.”

Nguiffo is the founder and director of the Center for Environment and Development, a Cameroonian NGO that works to protect the rights of forest communities.

Palm oil companies sell themselves on the promise of sustainable development, good jobs, improved food security and opportunities for local communities. But when plantations and processing plants move in, they clear cut vast tracts of tropical rainforest, destroying critical habitat for endangered species and violating the rights of forest-dependent communities. Clear cutting the forest contributes as much CO2 emissions to the atmosphere as the global transportation industry, seriously impacting climate change.

The actual production of palm oil from palm fruits is a highly polluting process, producing solid and liquid waste that contaminate surrounding resources, further disrupting land productivity and remaining small-scale farm activities.

The jobs that are created by palm oil plantations do little to benefit local communities as they are often given to migrant workers and are rife with labor rights violations.

In the end, it seems that unchecked industrial palm oil expansion is neither sustainable nor particularly beneficial to local communities. Simply put by Silas Siakor, “Palm oil seems to be compounding, not alleviating poverty.”

Join us next week as we explore just how prevalent palm oil is in our grocery stores and what you can do to demand truly responsible palm oil from your favorite snack food companies.

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