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Palm oil is everywhere, in food and everyday items you don’t even realize. It’s in your morning bowl of cereal, your afternoon biscuits, your dinner pizza, in soap and even in the biodiesel that fuels your car. And sadly, in many places, it comes with human and environmental costs.
To find out why, I recently joined an Oxfam field trip to Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer. We wanted to talk to those affected by big palm oil plantations.
Plantation workers in Pelalawan district, Riau province. Photo: Des Syafrizal/Oxfam
Before the trip, we had found out that high-ranking executives from a company that sells palm oil to Cargill, a supplier of food industry giants such as Kellogg and General Mills, were standing trial for starting a fire last year in Riau province, on the island of Sumatra. This was in order to make way for palm oil plantations, and it’s alleged that it contributed to the massive forest fires that created a haze affecting people across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
My research colleagues say that this fire released into the atmosphere CO2 emissions equivalent to the annual emissions from more than 10 million cars. That’s the same as the emissions for a full year from all of the cars in Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago combined. Can you imagine?
Aerial photo shows forest fires in Riau Province, 2013. Photo: Antara/Virna Puspa Setyorini
No wonder Indonesia is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide, behind China and the United States.These sort of devastating practises are rarely talked about in global warming discussions.
The villagers I talked to in Riau province have seen the weather change over the past 15-20 years. “The weather started to change around five years after the palm oil company took over our land. It used to be cool and tepid, but these days it’s dry, and we’re seeing droughts and floods since the late ‘90s. Wells have dried up; whereas before we could get water by digging down one meter, now we need to dig over 10 meters deep. Floods also impact those with land close to the river,” stated a village elder, who chose to remain anonymous.
As the climate grows more unpredictable, food prices are going up. “Chili is quite pricey at the moment because there is little supply since the dry season started earlier than usual,” explained a woman villager. Chili is a common spice in Indonesia. It is used to season curries and noodle broths, and it’s the base of a very popular condiment called sambal. But the problems faced by the communities we met do not end there.
Polluted river. Pelalawan district, Riau province. Photo: Des Syafrizal/Oxfam
The people we talked to said their lives had become harder since the palm oil company moved in. The company struck a deal with the local government so the villagers had no choice but to give their land away for very little money. The company forced them off their land, destroyed their forest and polluted their river, affecting their ability to feed their families and make a decent living.
A female villager noted that she was much happier before the company arrived. “I didn’t need to worry about getting food on the table for my children. We just picked the food we needed from our land. We grew rice, corn, cucumbers and chili. We ate fish and drank directly from the river. By selling our own vegetables and rubber we could even save some money and send our children to school and visit the doctor when we needed it. But the company has destroyed our way of life.”
Most villagers got offered a job with the company as laborers, but many have quit because the company has not fulfilled their financial commitments. In addition to working as laborers, some had to work somewhere else and even get their children to help them out. Some children dropped out of school because their parents could not afford the fees.
Time for action
After talking to these Indonesian villagers and seeing how they live, I cannot look at my bowl of cereal the same way. It is clear to me now that our favorite food brands like Kellogg and General Mills should do better to ensure that their suppliers do not pollute our planet and leave people hungry. Join me in calling on these powerful companies to do better.