Focusing on the claims made by the oil palm industry to “sell” their industrial plantations, the World Rainforest Movement (WRM) has produced a new booklet:
The report aims at strengthening the struggles of all those who are opposing large-scale oil palm plantations in the global South. After expanding in Indonesia and Malaysia for decades, large expansions have more recently been occurring in rural areas in countries in Africa and Latin America. These expansions of industrial oil palm plantations once and again preclude the way of life of rural communities as well as their proposals for how land be used in ways that improve their well-being. The purpose of showing the lies behind the oil palm industry’s claims adds to the efforts towards dismantling a socially and environmentally destructive model of production, commercialization and consumption.
The booklet focuses on twelve lies, namely:
*Oil palm companies use land in remote areas or in areas not effectively used, or so called marginal lands.
Soil fertility and availability of water are key factors that determine where oil palm companies will establish their plantations. Hence, lands used for agriculture and cattle raising, and even forests are taken over by oil palm plantations.
*The compensation paid to people for losing access to land is adequate.
Many people in the global South hold customary rights to the land they use and on which they have often lived for many generations. When they lose access to land as a result of the establishing of a large scale oil palm plantation, the rules established by the national government for how to calculate such “compensation” often exclude lands under customary use. So, in most cases they do not receive any compensation at all or are paid very low amounts and sometimes only for the crops grown on part of the territory used by a community.
*The palm oil industry contributes to food security.
Malaysian and Indonesian rural communities can tell otherwise. Apart from outright loss of the land, decrease in local food production occurs when indigenous peoples and peasants stop producing crops for local markets because they start to work for oil palm companies and do not have time to work on their lands. Also, rising prices of staple foods is common, linked to a more general trend of speculation. These are some of the trends that undermine the livelihoods and thus the food security, and in general, the food sovereignty of thousands of rural communities where oil palm companies have been expanding their plantations.
*Oil palm plantations have a minimal need for water and for chemical inputs.
How “minimal” can the impact of a large scale plantation be for local inhabitants? Oil palm plantations often cover thousands and thousands of hectares, and the “minimal needs” become large amounts of agrotoxins and fertilizers, applied to guarantee the high production that the companies pursue. Together with the effluent of the mills where oil palm fruit is processed to obtain the crude palm oil, the pesticides and fertilizers, too, pollute rivers and streams used by people to obtain drinking water, for bathing and washing clothes.
*Oil palm plantations conserve the environment and contribute to reducing global warming.
How can a notorious driver of deforestation contribute to reducing global warming? Indonesia and Malaysia, where most of the world´s oil palm plantations are located, are the evidence for the destruction of forests by oil palm plantations while the same is happening in Africa and Latin America with the increasing expansion of oil palm plantations.
*Companies say they are committed to listening to communities that will be affected by the plantations or that are already affected by oil palm plantations, and address their demands.
Top-down projects leaving no option to say no, pressure, promises of jobs and/or some social project are some of the strategies of the companies. When companies are contacting communities, it is usual for them to come to inform the community about the company plans so communities will not hinder but rather support them.
*Oil palm plantations create many jobs and thus contribute to employment in the region.
The jobs in oil palm plantations are usually badly paid and it is common for workers on oil palm plantations to work as day laborers, without contract or any additional benefits. In some countries, outsourcing of labor is a way of evading legal social obligations while it is also an anti-trade union tool that promotes informal and precarious labor. Furthermore, workers have to carry out hazardous activities like applying pesticides, with severe negative impacts on their health, often lacking access to safety equipment. Communities complain that most of the jobs are in the first years when the oil palm plantations are established and that afterwards few jobs remain. In the case of female workers, besides facing a double work load, harassment by foremen or security guards from the companies is also a common reality.
*Involving peasant farmers in planting oil palm in expansion regions offers additional benefits and is an excellent alternative for them.
In the case of the smallholders, such as in Indonesia, they are seldom consulted about the oil palm project by which on the one hand they are forced to give up their customary lands, including forest lands they often depend on in many ways, while on the other hand, they get in return a 2-hectare plot of oil palm with a sort of “land title”. Apart from assuming a debt to establish the plantations that they often have difficulties to pay back, this means a violation of their customary land rights and often results in conflicts, of which hundreds exist today in Indonesia.
*Oil palm plantations improve the supply of basic services to the residents (roads, clinics, schools).
Though often a network of roads throughout the plantations is set up by the oil palm company, its routing is mainly to facilitate the transport of the harvested fruits. The road can thus either benefit the communities or jeopardize them, for example when the company changes the course of roads traditionally used by communities. When it comes to building and offering schools and health services, communities often complain that these promises are delayed or not fulfilled.
At the end of the day, it is much more the company that benefits from government measures to ´help´ them – getting concessions for low or no fees and other advantages such as tax breaks, subsidies, loans with low interest rates, etc. - than that communities benefit from the company´s initiatives to support communities.
*Oil palm companies contribute to sustainable development of countries.
India and China are the main global importers of palm oil, followed by the European Union. However, Europe remains by far the biggest per capita consumer of palm oil and vegetable oil in general, due to its excessive consumption pattern that includes the use of oil palm in a large range of different supermarket products, different from China´s and India´s use which is largely related to basic use for cooking purposes. The present expansion of oil palm plantations in Africa and also in Latin America is most often about supplying outside markets like the European Union (EU), where refining of the crude oil and transforming it into final products takes place. The jobs and wealth created around these activities do not benefit people in the producing countries.
*The palm oil industry is committed to a number of high standards like ethical conduct.
The reality of the conduct of the palm oil sector in countries like Indonesia fails to substantiate these claims. To the contrary, the sector has been involved in cases of corruption, graft, and bribery as well as rent-seeking by politicians, public and government officials. Furthermore, many cases of violence have been reported in the hundreds of conflicts with local communities that companies are involved with.
*RSPO guarantees sustainable oil palm.
RSPO suffers from structural problems that make it impossible to deliver this promise: the huge majority of its members are the big global players in the palm oil sector who maintain and fuel a model that guarantees huge quantities of “cheap” palm oil, mainly to fulfill demand in industrialized countries and for emerging markets, and generates enormous profits for them.
Another problem is that RSPO does not differentiate between different scales of operation, applying the same criteria to small plantations and to monocultures of tens or hundreds of thousands of hectares that per definition are never sustainable for local people and nature.
Much closer to a sustainable way of producing palm oil and many products based on it are the traditional systems of growing oil palm and processing palm oil for products sold on local and regional markets. These traditional oil palm economies are still practiced in many western and central African countries and in a specific region in Brazil. These diversified traditional palm oil systems, where palm oil is grown in agroforestry or intercropping schemes provide significantly more benefits for local and national economies in these countries, at a much lower environmental cost. RSPO just serves as a form of “greenwashing” of oil palm plantations and their image.
The booklet concludes that the presented claims of the palm oil industry are not only misleading, many times they are also false, including the statement that they improve the wellbeing of local communities. For most people life indeed changes dramatically with the invasion of oil palm plantations in their territory, but for the worse.
Hundreds of resistance struggles taking place in oil palm expansion areas in Latin America, Africa and Asia are testimony that communities do not easily accept all these impacts imposed on them. They struggle for recognition of their land rights and territories, and demand support for their alternatives to large scale plantation development.
Stronger alliances among communities and organizations in consumer countries and countries with large oil palm plantations are needed to more effectively challenge the ongoing expansion of oil palm plantations. Besides exposing the lies and empty promises of oil palm companies, this will need solidarity with those defending the territories and forests on which communities in Asia, African and Latin American countries depend and that are at risk of being taken over by oil palm plantations. Solidarity is also needed with those working towards different production and consumption models which are not based on further destruction of forests and peoples’ livelihoods in the global South.