[73] Palm Oil

The road from Georgetown to Cameron brings me back to Central America. Of course both are tropical areas, but it are the palm trees which catch my attention. Not the ones you know of the white bounty beaches, but I am watching at African palm.

I remember the African palm fields in Nicaragua. Wandering between the huge trees which had taken the space of indigenous nature, rainforest mostly. No other kind of nature can grow between the palms, because they exhaust the soil, take away the sunlight for lower growing species, and especially due to the fertilizers and pesticides. Add up the high demand of water which ruins the natural water flows, and you can see African palm is not the most sustainable choice of crops.

Dominating Life

Where palm grows, other kind of life is destroyed.

Even human life. In Central America and in South-East-Asia the story around these palm trees is similar. First of all the African palm does not belong here, it is imported and especially the way in which it grows has nothing to do with the local nature. Big multinational companies come in, burn down the rainforest or buy out local farmers in case of agricultural land. As such they not only destroy the local ecosystem, but the local social system as well. In Nicaragua, for instance, I saw how life not only was taken out of the soil and nature, but out of the women and men working on the land as well.

Palm oil is a menace for nature and human beings, yet palm oil is used in about everything, from food over biofuels to cosmetics. Just a small experiment: check the ingredients of everything you use during one day, from your breakfast to your daily shampoo. You would be surprised how much of them contain palm oil.

From Question to Action

Yet, because of its severe impact on its environment, ecologic, economic and social, companies and politicians started questioning the topic, especially under pressure of ambient action groups.

Albeit questioning does not implicate immediate change, it is the first step.

The European Union for instance started to review its Renewable Energy Directive, the roadmap towards a lower carbon energy system and more renewable energy sources. Biofuels, of which palm oil is one, were and still are an important resource to obtain the renewable energy targets of the EU. However, the EU started to make a distinction between the various kinds of biofuel, depending on their ecological impact.

Various Actors on the Scene

Palm oil is gaining increased media attention on all sides of the spectrum. Those concerned with the environment, both economic, ecologic and social, appoint the ban of palm oil as a must for sustainable development. While companies at the Malaysian and Indonesian side, the main exporters of palm oil, are doing all it needs to keep palm oil in the running, in order to keep the economy going.

One can wonder who is actually responsible in this chain, and who has to pay for the damage caused.

The governments allowing to replace rainforest by palm oil crops? The multinationals paying the local governments to burn down the rainforests and expropriate the local communities? Or what about the governments at the other side, such as the EU, who created a market for biofuels without taking its consequences into account? And what about the consumers who continue using palm oil-containing products and biofuels? Or are we all into this, and do we have to take all our responsibility, including finding a solution to replace this unsustainable, but important economic pillar of these countries, with a more sustainable one? How far should the EU, and these companies go in taking responsibility for the caused damage?

Many questions I cannot provide an answer on today, so I will come back at the topic later on.


But first, let’s continue the road to the Cameron Highlands. Another example of agriculture.

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