Palm oil : What stakes (part 3)


It is a well-known fact that palm oil is currently at the heart of the debate. Opinions on the use of this one differ depending on the point of view. Some focus on its benefits and others on its misdeeds. It is important to know what are the real impacts of palm oil consumption.

Following the first two parts of this article on environmental and health impacts, this third part examines the socio-economic impacts of the use of palm oil.

Participation in local life and economic development

As we have seen in the previous parts of this article, the oil palm tree and the oil that comes from it are an integral part of local life and are very useful in the countries where they are exploited. Palm oil is found in many traditional dishes, and the palm tree and its oil, when used correctly, can have great health benefits. Moreover, the leaves of the oil palm tree are used by the population to make their raffia roofs.

While consumers are mainly located in the northern hemisphere, palm oil producers are mainly located in the southern hemisphere. Investments in palm oil production and transportation allow these less developed countries and their populations to access more infrastructure such as roads, schools, hospitals, health networks and more.

The palm oil industry supports millions of people in producing countries (590,000 people in Malaysia and 5 million in Indonesia)1 and brings them out of poverty. The cultivation of oil palm tree indeed generates between 1000 and 2000 dollars per year per hectare. As it is not very mechanized, it creates many jobs and sustainable incomes for workers


An industry certainly beneficial, but to a lesser extent

From a social and economic point of view the production of palm oil seems very beneficial for the local populations, but this must be nuanced. For example, populations are evicted in order to deforest the land for cultivating oil palm trees. Such has been the case in 2010 with the Daabon Organic scandal, a company accused of having “bought” by force land in Las Pavas in Colombia, and thus to have expelled 123 families to deforest the land to plant there a palm grove.

Another nuance may be that the population certainly has work, but this one is not necessarily carried out in good conditions. Workers’ rights are not always respected, as are customary rights. Among the workers are women and children and some employees are ill-treated.

Source : cgt-unilever

Finally, even if the palm oil industry generates a lot of profits, they are very badly redistributed. In particular, certain rural communities benefit little from the development allowed by the cultivation of oil palm tree.

The palm oil industry is very successful. To illustrate, the NGO Amnesty International in 2016 showed that the Indonesian palm oil industry represents a turnover of 300 billion euros made by nine multinationals. However, the supply chain has the effect that local populations do not benefit from it as they should.

The plantations are mainly controlled by small planters, grouped or not in cooperatives. The harvested fruits are then sold to factories who extract the oil. Lastly, the multinational agrifood companies provide palm oil from these. We can thus see the appearance of a system where big multinationals end up having a hold on small producers and planters, or even exploiting them. The food company Wilmar (Singapore) gives us an illustration : 43% of world’s trade in palm oil is controlled by it. In 2015, its benefits reached 36.45 billion euros, however the incomes of plantation workers amounted to no more than 2.50 dollars per day.

From a socio-economic perspective, the stakes are thus numerous. Even if the palm oil industry allows the development of many populations, there are still too many deviances, especially for conventional palm oil cultivation. Secondly, organic does not mean sustainable and therefore the considerations for workers are sometimes less. Lastly, as concerning sustainable palm oil, this again does not ensure that there will be no deviance from a human and economic perspective. Indeed, the certification system is flawed and certifications can be bought but not respected, as already explained in the first part of this article dealing with environmental impacts.


So us, consumers, what should we do ?!

Globally, opinions on the use of palm oil vary widely.  But one thing is sure : it is necessary to consume less and better. The best is still not to consume it, to boycott the bad practices of producers. For that, it is necessary to know how to detect it. A trick may be to visit associative websites and apps, which list products containing it. You can also look at the composition of the products since it can be hidden under the name “vegetable oil”, “vegetable fat”, or even “palm acid”. Therefore, it is better to privilege home-made dishes rather than industrial preparations that are often highly processed, or at least dishes with a composition close to a home-made recipe.

If it happens that you cannot avoid it, you can limit its consumption. Alternatives such as rapeseed, olive or canola oil, sunflower oil or butter can be used.  It is also a good idea to choose products containing oil from organic, or even sustainable, palm groves and “non-hydrogenated”.

Finally, no matter whose fault it is, producers, consumers, food industries, States, or globalization, it is up to everyone to act to put an end to the bad practices of palm oil cultivation. But the question that still remains is how can we really act?

A propos de Manuella DEBAIZE

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