The Problems with Palm Oil

By: John A. Lanier

With high international demand for a low-price commodity material produced in the developing world, the palm oil industry sprung up without corresponding procedures and oversight to limit abuses.

I’m setting my typical silly opening aside, because this post is going to be a weighty one. I’m going to talk about palm oil, which is one of our planet’s wonder materials. I wrote a post about it back in the summer of 2018, and in that blog I mainly explained what palm oil is and some of the environmental concerns associated with it. My post still stands, so feel free to go back and read it.

In revisiting palm oil as a topic, I now want to emphasize the social concerns in the industry. Yes, this is an environmental blog, but in this case the social and environmental impacts are closely intertwined. Both stem from palm oil’s desirability, versatility, and profitability in so many products and industries. The stuff. Is. Everywhere. With high international demand for a low-price commodity material produced in the developing world, the palm oil industry sprung up without corresponding procedures and oversight to limit abuses. That’s why illegal logging takes place for new plantings of palm. It’s also why palm oil plantations have become hot spots for human rights abuses.

I want to provide a warning here about an issue that may be sensitive for some readers – abuse of women. I will not discuss anything in graphic terms, but I am going to link to a report from the Associated Press that does. It’s an important article, and it pulled the wool back from my eyes on these problems with palm oil. That said, if any readers find this a difficult subject to read about, I encourage you to stop reading here with this takeaway – try to avoid buying products with palm oil until it can be more responsibly sourced.

Here’s the article, reported and written by Margie Mason and Robin McDowell. It’s more than 4000 words, so it isn’t a quick read. That’s a good thing. What they uncovered was shocking and disturbing, and it is a topic best handled in long-form journalism.

As a means of summary, there appears to be widespread abuse of women in palm oil plantations in four different ways. One is economic, and many women are paid such small wages for hard physical labor that they must work day after day with no prospect for economic advancement. Working on a palm oil plantation is less of a job and more of a survival strategy.

Another is child labor and trafficking. For some laborers, they start in the fields as children and never leave for the rest of their lives. It’s a short leap to conclude that some labor practices are unacceptably close to slavery.

A third is exposure to toxic chemicals. Various agrochemicals are used on plantations, like weed killer that is sprayed from tanks that workers carry on their backs. These chemicals can spill out of their containers or blow back when sprayed into a breeze, and after repeated exposure, many women have suffered a variety of negative health effects. This is another clear linkage between the environmental and social harms of this industry.

The fourth, and perhaps most disturbing, is sexual abuse. Palm oil plantations span vast acreages, and women laborers can often find themselves alone with male superiors. The reporters interviewed dozens of women, and their stories of abuse are chilling.

In conclusion, here’s one direct quote from the article that is the best call to action I can think of:

“When handed a $20 lipstick by a journalist, a worker named Defrida was told it contained palm oil. She twisted the silver case and stared at the glistening pink stick – first with intrigue, then with disgust.

Noting she would have to spray pesticide on 30 acres of rough jungle terrain just to afford a single tube, she pleaded with women who buy products containing palm oil: ‘Oh, my God!’ she said. ‘Please pay attention to our lives.’”

It’s not just beauty products y’all. As I said earlier, palm oil. Is. Everywhere. It’s incumbent upon all of us in the Global North to pay attention to the lives of these precious women who deserve so much better than what they live on a daily basis.