Oceans & Forests Blog

Palm oil: fueling landgrabs and climate change, not development

Posted Feb. 4, 2013 / Posted by: Jeff Conant

Science and social movements agree: Palm oil expansion is bad for people and bad for the planet

Just a few years ago, palm oil entered the spotlight as one of the best and brightest options for a “drop-in” biofuel feedstock (a type of biofuel that can be “dropped into” existing transportation infrastructure) to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, cut back on climate emissions, and bring economic development to marginal lands in developing countries. But a growing body of evidence shows that reliance on palm oil not only fails to reduce global warming, it increases it. And a growing movement of peasant farmers in the developing world is casting doubt on the industry’s promises of economic development, arguing that the palm oil hype is merely cover for a rash of often violent landgrabs.

A study published in Nature last week shows that growing palm oil trees to make biofuels is likely accelerating the effects of climate change. In the Nature study, an international team of scientists examined how the deforestation of peat swamps in Malaysia to make way for palm oil trees is releasing carbon that has been locked away for thousands of years.

"Our results are yet another reminder that when we disturb intact peat swamps and convert them to industrial biofuel plantations, we risk adding to the very problem that we are trying to solve," Chris Freeman, one of the authors of the report, told Reuters.

As governments and companies look to biofuels to provide a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels in transport, the industry has expanded rapidly. But data leaked from the European Union, where palm oil is part of the mandated biofuel mix, makes clear that, when the effects of deforestation and peatlands degradation are taken into account, palm oil biodiesel is more polluting than conventional gasoline. (The U.S. EPA last year ruled that palm oil produces too many greenhouse gases to qualify as a renewable fuel under our Renewable Fuels Standard.) Numerous reports also show that Europe’s biofuel mandate may be adversely impacting world food prices and hunger.

But because of the lucrative nature of the crop and the swelling demand, palm and other biofuel feedstocks such as sugarcane and corn, continue to hold tenaciously to the ‘renewable’ label.

Indeed, it is no surprise to us at Friends of the Earth that the expansion of palm oil plantations across the tropics is one of the most rapidly growing drivers of deforestation and emissions of greenhouse gases, as well as displacement of forest-dwelling communities. Dovetailing with the exponential growth of biofuel use, investment in large-scale land acquisitions and a rapid rise in both commodity prices and commodity speculation are creating a perfect storm of landgrabs and climate pollution that can be expected to continue for the foreseeable future -- unless we can curb these trends through targeted action by governments, environment rights advocates and civil society groups.

More than 80 percent of palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, where some estimates show an area the size of Greece being cleared every year for palm oil plantations, and where extensive documentation shows the ugly reality of expanding plantations replacing forests. But palm is expanding rapidly in Latin America and Africa as well, leading to a rash of landgrabs there.

In a press release issued last Friday, Friends of the Earth Liberia denounces palm oil companies, including Malaysian palm oil giant Sime Darby and Indonesian company Golden Veloreum, for grabbing more than 1.5 million acres of land in Liberia and violating the human rights of local communities. The companies have entered into long term land leases with the Liberian government, but communities living on these lands were not consulted, and see the deal as a violent land grab -- a takeover of their land carried out with threats and brutality leading to ongoing repression and what one local described as 'modern-day slavery'. Many locals, especially women, say that oil palm plantations have already destroyed their farms, food sources and livelihoods, as well as culturally sacred sites. According to a recent report by Global Witness, at least 711 killings have been reported in similar landgrabs around the world since 2002.

On the eve of a United Nations meeting in Liberia that will discuss a new global development framework, Friends of the Earth International is backing the local NGOs’ demands -- including renegotiation of contracts for land concessions and a reassessment of the Liberian agricultural development strategy.

Similar palm oil related landgrabs are taking place in Uganda and Nigeria where Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil trader, has invested heavily, and in Cameroon, where U.S.-based Herakles Farms is converting over 180,000 acres of tropical forest into palm plantation, under the guise of socioeconomic development and environmental protection.

To the notion that developing countries need palm oil to lift them out of poverty, Liberian campaigner Robert Nyahn argues, “Forests have environmental benefits and provide multiple livelihood sources for the people, which they have now lost. Employment from the plantations is insecure, low-paid and does not contribute to sustaining livelihoods in the long term.”

Friends of the Earth Liberia campaigner Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor adds, “Allocating large swathes of fertile agricultural land to foreign companies will push people further into poverty, as local income generating activities are curtailed and peoples’ earning capacities become limited.”

The new Nature study and the vocal protests of forest communities only confirm what we already know -- that increasing reliance on palm oil is bad for people and bad for the planet.

The challenge now is to get the stuff out of our fuels and foods (where palm oil consumption in the U.S. is concentrated), and to get the palm oil-related landgrabs out of our pension funds and other investments. Just last year, the Norwegian pension fund began to go palm oil-free. Friends of the Earth's research shows that U.S. investors such as Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund, the State of Wisconsin Investment Board, and banks like Bank of America and Citigroup are heavily invested in palm oil, particularly through its holdings in Wilmar. Perhaps pulling our money out of palm will help stem the rash of landgrabs -- and get us on the track to truly tackle climate change. 

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