business energy environment equality human rights poverty

The problem with palm oil biofuels

Palm oil can be found in many products; soap, washing powders, and more recently biofuels. I’ve written before how biofuels could pose a whole new threat to people and environment and I wish to develop this subject a little further.

For me, biofuels have always resembled an idea or a myth. Something the average person (in the UK) would never fully encounter or really understand, shrouded in a smog of idealistic views of a cleaner environment and future. If asked to define biofuels, many would simply say “a clean alternative to oil”. It seems a great deal of advertising would have you believe this was the case. Unfortunately, the fact that biofuels are cleaner than oil is the only tip of the iceberg. The bit everyone sees.

The biofuels industry is “often advertised by governments and companies as making an important economic contribution to development. However, this analysis is often one-sided, and fails to take into account the substantial social and environmental costs. These include the ecological price of removing rainforest, as well as pollution and damage to water courses – costs that are rarely taken into account by economists.” Friends of the Earth

Ultimately, biofuels are better for the environment only at their point of use, not their point of origin. When pumped into cars and burned in the West, we get to congratulate ourselves for our lower emissions and get cleaner air. Where trees are cleared and pesticides are spread to grow them, the result is devastation of the rainforest, but that’s on the other side of the world, out of sight and out of mind. In that sense, palm oil is not making the world a cleaner place. It is simply exporting environmental damage to poorer countries.

As well as environmental decline, and more importantly, the industry has serious detrimental impacts on people and communities. The industry has been known to bring an whole entourage of problems, including stunted economical development, pollution, and unemployment.

  • Conflict: In Indonesia a proportion of plantations are established on traditional lands already owned and used by agricultural farmers or indigenous peoples working at a local and subsistence level. As the land is traditionally passed down from former generations, there is no legal documentation to establish ownership. Therefore plantation companies can move in, bulldozing in areas where people can put up little defense. Subsequent conflicts arise between workers and indigenous peoples, and one side always wins. In Indonesia alone, between 1998 and 2002, it is reported that 479 people were tortured because of oil palm related conflicts.
  • Economical Development: In replacing the rain forest with one species of tree, a great number of local economies are destroyed. Formerly harvested NTFPs (non-timber forest products such as seeds, honey, ratan, rubber, medicinal plants etc) are completely removed from the area leaving locals with no income, and consequently no economy. This means the indigenous people, after being forced off their land, have to work on the plantations, often enduring very low wages (plantation profits, just like the supermarket’s, all leave the local area) and poor working conditions. The production area then becomes controlled by the global market, and at the mercy of international price fluctuations.
  • Pollution: The worst kept secret in the palm oil industry is the inevitable pollution of soil and water courses. Fertilizers and pesticides, along with oil itself, leach into the soil and seep their way into the local water supply. While destroying native ecosystems the process leaves the water unsuitable for human consumption. Paraquat (a toxic herbicide, banned in 13 countries) is used extensively in the areas (S.E Asia) causing health problems. The lack of health and safety procedures on equipment combined with minimal medical facilities creates a dangerous cocktail inflicted on plantation workers.
  • Unemployment: I’m writing about this topic last as its the one that took me most by surprise. I’d always assumed plantations meant jobs. This however, is not always the case. In Indonesia it is believed that the oil palm industry supplies 4.2 million people with jobs (2% of the overall population). It is also thought that around 100 million people rely on the forest in its natural state (for the aforementioned NTFPs), 40 million of which are indigenous people. Put into perspective, 40 million people is roughly two thirds the population of England. So the development of one industry could ruin the livelihoods of ten times as many people as it employs. If that many people were at risk of losing their jobs, homes and livelihoods in the UK, would that be tolerated? You tell me.

(For more articles on palm oil read here, here or here)


  1. Indigenous peoples researcher says:

    This is just crazy – biofuel is causing just as much destruction as petrolium-based fuel. In South America large tracts of rainforest are being burned and cleared for soybean farms to make “environmentally friendly” soy-ink. We must stop living beyond our means! Thanks for the other articles on palm oil as well… at least there are some of us trying to make a difference.

  2. Jeremy says:

    I didn’t know that about soy inks, but it doesn’t surprise me. You’re right, we need to live within our means. We are living at an unsustainable level, and we appear to be just substituting one exploitative business practice with another.

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