A Malaysian worker harvests palm fruit at a plantation on the Malay Peninsula, March 6, 2019. Although labor issues have been largely ignored, the punitive effects of palm oil on the environment are decried for years.
Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP
Why the citizens of the world should care
Ima is a 10 year old Malaysian girl who wanted to be a doctor when she was growing up. Instead, she was forced to leave the classroom and work in a palm plantation for up to 12 hours a day alongside her family, according to a recent AP investigation.
The plum-sized palm kernels that she collects are ultimately made into palm oil, the world’s most common vegetable oil, found in up to 50% of packaged supermarket items, cookies and bread with lipstick and soap.
Although 42 countries produce palm oil, Malaysia and Indonesia account for around 85% of the market, according to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF). As the AP survey shows, labor laws and enforcement are weak and uneven in these countries. As a result, more than one million children harvest palm kernels in Indonesia alone. Many workers do not have access to running water, electricity, health care or schools.
The vast majority of palm oil purchased by brands as diverse as Nestlé, Whole Foods and Girl Scouts can be harvested through forced labor and child labor. It’s a human rights crisis that could be linked to your favorite brand of cereal, cookies, or makeup – and that doesn’t even take into account the massive environmental cost of palm oil production. Due to unsustainable practices, the industry has caused significant deforestation, reports WWF.
A young girl collects palm oil fruits at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia, November 13, 2017. Some workers who fail to meet incredibly high quotas may see their wages drop, forcing workers whole families in the fields to do the daily count.
In Indonesia, palm oil producers destroyed a rainforest the size of the UK between 1990 and 2015, and the industry is threatening 193 critically endangered, threatened and vulnerable animals, according to Greenpeace.
Palm oil can be produced ethically and sustainably and the world should not turn away from the substance altogether, according to WWF. The organization notes that “palm oil provides 35% of the global demand for vegetable oil on only 10% of the land.” Switching to other oils would consume a lot more land, leading to more deforestation and potentially exacerbating forced labor problems.
But finding palm oil obtained in a way that empowers workers and protects the environment is a challenge. As Greenpeace points out, the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry watchdog and sustainability certifier, has failed to hold palm oil producers accountable for deforestation and forced labor.
Tackling this global problem is daunting, but here are four ways you can help make a difference.
1. Check the packaging.
Checking to see if palm oil is in the product you buy seems straightforward – just look at the label and scan the ingredients. But palm oil is transformed into some 500 different derivatives by the time it hits the shelves, and those derivatives account for 60% of all palm oil uses, according to Ethical Consumer.
There are four words and prefixes in particular that often reveal whether palm oil is present: “palmier” (obviously), “stear”, “laur” and “glyc”. Beyond that, you can check out the Orangutan Alliance handy list of hundreds of obscure names for derivatives.
Some products have seals indicating the quality of the palm oil used, but you can verify the integrity of these claims by searching online. While the RSPO has been criticized for inaction and for providing cover to companies, it has also helped bring together major palm oil producers and pushed the industry to improve its practices.
In recent years, the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) has been formed to support the RSPO in its efforts to transform palm oil production.
POIG’s vision is “a responsible supply chain that has severed the link between palm oil production and destruction of forests and peatlands, exploitation of communities and workers, and climate change”.
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2. Do your research.
Land cleared for planting oil palms, East Kalimantan, Indonesia.
The global nature of supply chains means that the everyday goods and products you rely on may have been harvested, produced and shipped in an unethical and unsustainable manner. Almost every major industry in the world – from food production to consumer goods to clothing – exhibit some degree of forced labor and environmental destruction.
You can learn a lot about the products you buy through online research – from how its raw materials are obtained to the types of labor standards involved in its production to its overall environmental impact.
You can then put that research into practice by purchasing companies that are committed to treating workers fairly and protecting the environment. WWF’s detailed palm oil dashboard can guide you on this journey.
3. Put pressure on businesses.
Last October, chocolate giant Mars – maker of M & Ms and Snickers – announced that it had achieved a 100% deforestation-free supply of palm oil. The conglomerate said it had reduced its palm oil supply chain from more than 1,500 palm oil mills to less than 100 in a bid to tighten oversight and accountability.
This type of change is possible on a much larger scale if pressure is applied at different levels. In response to the PA’s survey, for example, the Girl Scouts called on their suppliers to adhere to RSPO standards. Past journalistic surveys have also raised awareness and encouraged reforms.
Individuals and communities can intensify this pressure by calling on brands to investigate their supply chains and commit to protecting workers’ rights and the environment. Multinational companies can put enormous pressure on their suppliers to improve standards. They can also pay for a better supply. By refusing to shop at these companies, consumers can send a clear message that profit margins are at risk if changes are not made.
4. Call on politicians to act.
Oil palm fruit harvest in San Martin, Peru.
The continued human rights violations and environmental destruction caused by the palm oil industry are ultimately a political issue. In Indonesia, widespread political corruption prevents palm oil producers from being held accountable, according to a 2018 survey by Mongabay and Earthsight.
“In much of rural Indonesia, the most valuable commodity these corrupt politicians have to offer is land,” wrote Tom Johnson, research director at Earthsight. “The greatest demand for this land, for its part, concerns the development of giants [palm oil] plantations. “
Johnson continued, “The cash for palm oil has led to the election of politicians who make decisions in the best interests of the industry, increase the area of land ceded to companies and then fail to regulate them. . “
In 2013, according to Johnson, the chief justice of the nation’s highest court was caught accepting a $ 250,000 bribe to rule in favor of a district chief linked to business enterprises. ‘Palm oil.
Five years later, Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia, announced a three-year freeze on new palm oil licenses and the government’s intention to review existing licenses with the aim of rooting out corruption. But two years later, few changes had been made, according to the Jakarta Post.
The bribes that allow the destruction of the rainforest to produce palm oil sold to multinational companies that manufacture thousands of niche products can seem an abstract and even intractable problem to ordinary citizens all over the world. world.
But all trade is tied to the global economy. By raising awareness of this issue, bringing it to the attention of elected officials, and building coalitions to demand accountability and reform, you can help bring about change.
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