Palm oil is the world’s most popular vegetable oil. According to an ethical shopping guide compiled by the Rainforest Foundation UK, palm oil is commonly found in many packaged items in the supermarket, from ice cream to shampoo and bread to detergents. But it is not without its problems.
“Palm oil production is now one of the world’s leading causes of rainforest destruction,” writes the Rainforest Action Network. “Palm oil production is also responsible for human rights violations as corporations often forcefully remove indigenous peoples and rural communities from their lands.”
Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s biggest producers of palm oil, but as their lands have become saturated with palm plantations, businesses have turned to countries like Papua New Guinea (PNG) in pursuit of profit. PNG currently ranks as the third biggest exporter of palm oil globally, with 95% of exports bound for the EU. Palm oil production on the remote island nation has significantly increased since the mid 2000s, peaking at an all-time high in 2010 with exports totalling $450m.
According to Global Forest Watch, 91% of PNG’s forests were classed as primary in 2010, meaning they were largely untouched by human activity. This may change as palm oil production increases, as has been the case for PNG’s wealthier neighbour Indonesia.
“Research has shown that an oil palm plantation can support only 0-20% of the species of mammals, reptiles and birds found in primary rainforest,” states a Friends of the Earth report. The document continues: “But it is the local communities who most immediately feel the impact of [forest] destruction. They depend on these forests, often managed under the community’s traditional law, for their subsistence and cash income, as well as for cultural and religious practices. Deforestation completely overhauls their entire way of life.”
Clear-cutting land to make way for palm oil plantations not only affects biodiversity and local livelihoods, it also releases vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Greenpeace UK says that, globally, deforestation constitutes “up to one-fifth of global man-made emissions, more than the world’s entire transport sector”.
The Pacific Climate Change Science Program predicts that climate change in PNG will result in rising sea levels, warmer temperatures and higher annual rainfall. This will have significant effects on PNG’s economy, through factors such as higher rates of malaria, stress on infrastructure, changing agricultural patterns and social conflict associated with the displacement of coastal communities.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates the economy of PNG will be the most affected by climate change in the Pacific region. “The biggest component of economic loss is agriculture and Papua New Guinea is being affected severely because of the relatively high temperature rise and also the shortage of fresh water,” says Cyn-Young Park of the ADB.
Some of the small islands that make up PNG are already being inundated by rising sea levels. An encroaching shoreline has completely bisected Carteret Island, home of the world’s first climate change refugees, while locally grown coconuts, a food staple, are being wiped out as a result of coastal erosion on the atoll.
Illegal logging, corruption, racketeering and repression are all too common in PNG and compound the associated environmental and human costs of palm oil production. There is some evidence that companies seeking palm oil concessions in PNG are more interested in timber and use it as a cover to sidestep logging restrictions.
In the village of Gadaisu, which is located on PNG’s southernmost peninsula and is home to just a few hundred people, local residents are acutely aware of the effects palm oil is having on their way of life. The wider region, Milne Bay province, is economically reliant on palm oil, tourism and gold mining.
“People are not happy since oil palm [production] came along,” explains Ajit Muttucumaraswamy, who lived in Papua New Guinea for 25 years. His wife Rachel is from Gadaisu, so he knows the area well. “They find that on land where they grow their food, things like yams, bananas and vegetables, the yields have gone down.”
The villagers blame the decreased harvests on the chemicals found in fertilisers used by the palm oil industry. Instead of growing their own crops, residents now often have to go to town to buy food. Palm oil production has also introduced new pests that invade food crops in Gadaisu.
Palm oil production occurs between Gadaisu and the region’s capital Alotau. Muttucumaraswamy says that palm oil is more environmentally destructive than local forms of food production, where the forest regenerates afterwards.
“If they had an alternative way of earning a better living, then they would rather not have oil palm,” says Muttucumaraswamy. “They are not happy that they will lose their forests and their traditional lands.”
“Local communities can only lose from this new wave of land grabs for palm oil,” says Grain, an international NGO that supports communities to create sustainable food systems. “They have to face all of the impacts that come with vast monoculture plantations within their territories – pollution from pesticides, soil erosion, deforestation and labour migration. Experience also shows that the employment generated by the plantations often goes to outsiders, and that most of the jobs are seasonal, poorly paid and dangerous.”
The villagers of Gadaisu live within a subsistence economy. They only have rudimentary agricultural tools and transport is a challenge. “The roads are pretty bad,” laments Muttucumaraswamy. Despite these challenges, many locals make money by selling the flesh of coconuts. They sell the dried meat, known as copra, at market and on a good day earn enough to then buy household staples such as rice, flour and sugar. Fishing is another source of income for the coastal town, although this is hampered by a lack of nets and boats able to venture into deep waters.
“Eighty-five percent of Papua New Guineans are rural. That means they depend on their land, forests, rivers and seas for their survival,” Rosa Koian, of PNG non-governmental organisation Bismark Ramu Group, said to Mongabay about palm oil production. “We will never reduce poverty if thousands of land-, forest-, river- and sea-dependent people are forced off their land. They lose their food supply system and everything fails with it.”
What the villagers of Gadaisu want is quite simple – they hope to be able to use the land like their parents and grandparents before them. Ajit Muttucumaraswamy sums it up succinctly: “They want a better life and they would like to keep their forests.”
Photo caption: a market in Papua New Guinea. Photo by Tanaka Juuyoh, used under Creative Commons licence.
About the writer
I have worked as a freelance journalist for the past 3 years. I worked in research roles for a decade before that, in the fields of public health, community development and international development. I’m based in the UK, but frequently spend time in Mexico and Canada. I completed an Investigative Journalism Fellowship in 2013, looking at the social and environmental impacts of mining in Mexico. I have had my work featured in publications including The Guardian, New Internationalist, Truth Out, Yes! Magazine and The Ecologist.
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