Planet palm oil

Planet palm oil

GRAIN | 22 September 2014 | Reports, Planet palm oil

Expanding production of cheap palm oil comes at a high price. Destruction of rainforests, labour exploitation, and brutal land grabbing: these are just a few of the nasty consequences that come with today's oil palm plantations.

With palm oil companies finding lands in Indonesia and Malaysia more difficult to acquire, attention is shifting to Africa. Over the past fifteen years, foreign companies have signed over 60 deals covering nearly 4 million hectares in central and western Africa for the development of oil palm plantations. The land grabs are already generating violent conflicts in several African countries.

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Cheap oil

GRAIN | 22 September 2014 | Planet palm oil

The demand for palm oil is insatiable. Consumption has increased by about 1.5 million tonnes per year since the mid 1980s, going from just a few million tonnes to over 50 million tonnes today. Palm oil now accounts for over half of the world's total consumption of oils and fats.

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Cash crop

GRAIN | 22 September 2014 | Planet palm oil

The surging global demand for oil palm has produced windfall profits for palm oil companies and turned them into hot targets for investment by banks, pension funds and other financiers looking to cash in on the palm oil boom. All the major palm oil companies are ploughing this new found money into more plantations. So much so that it is difficult to say if money is a bigger driver of plantation expansion than the global demand for palm oil.

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A scramble for lands

GRAIN | 22 September 2014 | Planet palm oil

Oil palm plantations can only be established on a narrow band of lands in tropical areas that are roughly 7 degrees North or South of the equator and that have abundant and evenly spread rainfall. This makes the potential area for new oil palm plantations rather limited. Plus, most of these lands are composed of forests and farmlands that are occupied by indigenous peoples and peasants, some of whom are already growing oil palms for local markets.

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Local communities lose access to vital lands and water resources in this new wave of land grabs for palm oil. And 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.

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New frontiers for oil palm

GRAIN | 22 September 2014 | Planet palm oil

The global expansion of oil palm plantations is concentrated in tropical areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America with high levels of rain fall. It so happens that these lands are occupied by peasants and indigenous peoples and the tropical forests that they depend on. The expansion of oil palm plantations, therefore, is necessarily a story about the displacement of these people and the destruction of their forests and farms to make way for monoculture plantations.

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From the plantations of Malaysia to the small farms of Honduras, all oil palms trace their origins to Africa. It was here, long ago, somewhere in the western and central parts of the continent that people first began to use the plant for their needs. They discovered dozens of uses for the plant, and it soon became an integral part of their food systems and local economies and cultures. In the traditional songs of many countries of West and Central Africa, oil palm is called the "tree of life".

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Local knowledge of the oil palm in West and Central Africa constitutes a rich heritage that can be capitalised on to safeguard African biodiversity. While the plantations and factories of the industrial system employ relatively few workers, traditional systems provide products and income for millions of people. Women in particular are involved in the harvesting, processing, and marketing of palm oil, palm kernels and more.

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Well oiled resistance

GRAIN | 22 September 2014 | Planet palm oil

The communities facing land grabs from palm oil companies are under tremendous pressure. Those who resist face arrest, harassment and violence. And yet communities in Africa and around the world, from Papua New Guinea to Sarawak, from Cameroon to Guatemala, continue to struggle to stop palm oil companies from entering their lands.

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This report also contains, as annexes, two tables. One provides information on over 60 large scale land grabs in Africa for oil palm plantations by foreign companies since 2000. The second covers land grabs for palm oil in the Papuas of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

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