Palm oil is a vegetable oil drawn from the fruit and kernel of oil palms, primarily the African species, Elaeis guineensis (Figure 1). Palm oil is an ingredient in over 50% of all processed food sold in food markets around the world. These foods include margarine, potato chips, chocolate, crackers, cookies, ice cream, and instant soup. Because it is a highly versatile agricultural product,palm oil is also used in making many non-food items including soap, shampoo, deodorant, cosmetics, massage oil and machine lubricants. An increasing worldwide demand also exists for palm oil as a biofuel.
In addition to its versatility, the African palm has two features that make it particularly attractive to companies in the business of growing, distributing and selling food. Palm oil is a high yield plant, producing ten times more oil per unit than crops such as soybeans or sunflowers. Palm oil also has a relatively short gestation period with fruit that can be harvested after only two and a half years of cultivation. For all these reasons, palm oil has become one of the most sought after agricultural commodities in the world. Global consumption of palm oil grew from 15 million tons in 1995 to 69 million tons by 2018. In the United States, palm oil imports have jumped 485% in the last ten years. Today, palm oil is the most produced and consumed vegetable oil in the world. 1
Intense palm oil cultivation began in Indonesia and Malaysia in the early 20th century. Since that time both countries have cut down over six million hectares of their tropical rain forests for palm plantations. Today, Indonesia and Malaysia provide over 80% of the world's annual palm oil supply. This has strengthened the position of the Indonesian and Malaysian economies in the world market. Domestically, four million people in both of these countries are directly or indirectly dependent on the palm oil industry for their livelihoods. Jobs connected to the palm oil industry include logging, planting, weeding, trimming, pest control, harvesting, trucking, and refining. The average income for local palm oil farmers can be up to five times higher than that of traditional subsistence crop farmers. For some palm oil farmers, this increased income has made possible a higher standard of living, educational opportunities for their children, and access to better health care.
Research on the growth of palm production in Indonesia and Malaysia shows that when the switch to palm cultivation is made by local farmers based on local needs, palm farming can be environmentally and socially sustainable. This is typically done by interspersing a few hundred hectares of palm oil with traditional subsistence crops and jungle.
Problems arise, however, when local farmers are forced to switch to palm oil cultivation by distant political authorities or national and international agriculture and food companies whose first priority is economic profit. In these cases, great expanses of forests are typically felled and the land is converted into a palm oil monoculture (Figure 2). The negative impact of these large-scale transitions have been well-documented in Indonesia and Malaysia. These impacts include species extinction, soil erosion, air and water pollution, elevated CO2 emissions, child labor, adult worker abuse, and land rights conflicts with indigenous people.
Palm oil cultivation has also been recently introduced on the other side of the world, in the lush tropical rainforests of Latin America. There, twelve countries have already destroyed huge tracts of tropical rainforest to grow African palm.
Guatemala currently produces the highest yield of palm oil per hectare than any country in the world. When palm oil was first introduced for cultivation in Guatemala, people hoped to avoid the negative environmental, social, and economic effects of the monocultures that were historically problematic for Malaysia and Indonesia.
Watch this Friends of the Earth video discussing palm oil cultivation from the perspective of Guatemala's Indigenous People.
Since the 1980s, the Guatemalan government has overseen most of the country’s plantation-style palm oil cultivation through joint agreements with national and international agriculture and food companies. The government’s proposed economic, social and environmental goals were to increase the country’s gross national product (GNP), improve the lives of rural Guatemalans and protect the land for future generations. By all estimates, the first goal has been reached. Annual GNP has maintained an average growth rate of 3% since 2012, making Guatemala the strongest economy in Central America. However, in regards to meeting the second and third goals, many observers claim that the transition to large-scale palm oil production has created serious social and environmental problems.
According to the government’s proposition, palm tree cultivation should be improving the standard of living for rural farmers. Given the high global demand for palm oil, it would make sense that the profits from international sales of palm oil would be directed toward improvements to both Guatemala’s infrastructure and lives of the Guatemalan people. For example, improvements in rural areas should include better roads, electrification, and access to clean water. Because long-term economic growth and stability in Guatemala's countryside requires an educated and healthy workforce, investment should also flow into the construction of rural schools and health clinics. No less important to Guatemala's social and economic future is a financially secure workforce. Rural farmers and plantation workers should be able to rely on palm oil as a reasonably secure and lucrative livelihood. At the same time, national leaders should focus on developing cultivation methods that safeguard the health of the land, water and wildlife for current and future generations.
Despite the stated intentions of the government, few of these improvements have accompanied the growth of palm oil cultivation in Guatemala. Problems like those experienced in Indonesia and Malaysia have emerged. These include irreversible damage to the region’s environmental biodiversity, water supply, and food resources. Corporate and government "land grabs" create more space for palm oil cultivation, but push indigenous people off their ancestral territories. Many people look at these actions as desecrations of native peoples’ material and spiritual cultures.
Guatemala's most tragic palm oil disaster took place on April 28, 2015, when heavy rains overflowed the oxidation ponds of a palm oil refinery. The overflow sent toxic material into the Pasión River in the Petén region of northern Guatemala. Within two days, over 100 miles of the river were covered with thousands of dead fish and other aquatic life (Figure 3). In addition to losing their food source, over 12,000 people along the river also lost their source of water for drinking, bathing and cleaning.
The company responsible for the spill was Reforestadora de Palma del Petén SA (REPSA). This company controls one third of Guatemala's 130,000 hectares of palm oil cultivation and supplies palm oil to the giant agriculture companies Cargill and Wilmar. At first, attempts by members of the Guatemalan government to investigate the disaster were blocked by government and business people loyal to REPSA. Nevertheless, in a landmark decision, a courageous judge ruled that the spill was an "ecocide" and ordered REPSA to temporarily cease operations while government authorities conducted an investigation.
Not long after this decision was made, Rigoberto Lima Cioc, the first indigenous person to document the social and ecological damage of REPSA operations, was gunned down in broad daylight by unidentified assailants. Following Cioc’s murder, three more community leaders were abducted and killed by people loyal to REPSA. These violent tactics created the intended effect. The judge who had ordered REPSA to cease operations was forced to back down and his ruling was overturned. Today, REPSA remains in business and the killers and assailants who murdered the Guatemalan community leaders remain at large.
Since 2015, indigenous communities and social justice organizations across Guatemala have come together to state a resounding “No!" Some indigenous groups, like those in the Sierra Chinajá region of Guatemala, are trying to block agribusiness land grabs by joining their traditional family landholdings into larger community properties under collective management. Women's groups have called for an end to massive deforestation and the creation of balance between the cultivation of food crops for local consumption and the farming of palm oil for the global market.
This brief case study of Guatemalan Palm oil raises questions about food and food systems that apply to crops and animals the world over.
- What natural processes and ecosystem features are important for growing healthy food at sustainable levels?
- What ethical foundations and norms should guide our decision-making as we grow, transport, process, market, consume, and dispose of food?
- What meanings have human beings given to food? How does food sometimes evoke awe and convey a sacred quality? What are some of the rituals and beliefs about food found in the world's religions?
- What actions are people taking around the world to address the challenges facing the quality, availability, and sustainability of food, and what actions might we take?