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Palm Oil Is in Everything from Soap to Waffles -- And Causing Massive Human Suffering and Environmental Harm

Here is what some communities are doing to fight back.

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After a few minutes on the motorbike the forest abruptly ended and the close, almost claustrophobic feeling of being under the forest canopy lifted. From the edge of a ridge we had a long view of hills rolling into the distance. Thousands of felled trees littered the slopes. At least a third of the expanse was on fire, the flames reaching 20 or 30 feet into the air. The heat was immense. I could see the new fence around the plantation office gleaming through the smoke and heat. A white helicopter rose off the horizon and circled the center of the plantation, but did not land.

Then we heard the whine of chainsaws. Jamaludin headed toward the sound, walking along the border between the remaining forest and the vast field of destruction. I lost him as he disappeared into the wall of forest, then heard him yelling, his voice bursting with anger. As my eyes adjusted to being back under the canopy I saw Jamaludin holding his machete above a young man carrying a chainsaw. “Who gave you permission to cut this forest?” Jamaludin demanded. The logger dropped his chainsaw, turned, and walked into the forest.

Jamaludin considers his Dayak identity the basis of his claim to the vast expanse of forested hills to the north and east of town. His parents lived a few kilometers away and generations of his family are buried there, scattered across the forests they once moved through. Certain trees, hundreds of years old, hold the spiritual essence of these family members, Jamaludin said. You can see evidence of these souls, he said, if you look in the dark crevices at the base of these trees where small streams of water drip – the physical manifestation of these at-times-playful, at-times-dangerous, spirits.

A short walk through the still-intact forest led us to one of these sacred places, marked with a ceramic urn. The forest was alive with sounds. We could hear a pair of hornbills having a conversation far overhead; a rustling and breaking of branches signaled the presence of a group of maroon leaf monkeys. We continued on, past the edge of the trees and out into the direct heat of the destroyed forest. Jamaludin showed me a second urn. Amid the downed and charred trees it remained unbroken, but Jamaludin said there is no way the spirits could survive such devastation. They have either retreated into the fragmented forest or perished.

As the palm oil boom continues, community opposition to the forest clearing and forced settlement appears to be on the rise. During the past five years, Duta Palma alone (which is one of the 10 largest palm oil producers in Indonesia) has experienced more than 10 protests across six plantation areas that encompass 30 communities. In 2011, thousands of disgruntled farmers protested against what they called Duta Palma’s “false promises” outside the Indragiri Hulu legislative council in the province of Riau, on Sumatra. Speaking to the Indonesian news service Detik, one protester demanded that Duta Palma stop its “deceptive ways.”

An Indonesian friend of mine, Sumantri, keeps a newspaper database of the conflicts that occur near Indonesian palm oil plantations. In 2011, he recorded almost 400 incidents of arrest, arson, and violence at palm oil plantations, but acknowledges his efforts are spotty and dependent on the whims of the local media, which are often pressured by the palm oil companies not to cover protests. According to Sumantri, a certain level of dissent accompanies almost all new plantations. Arrests of activists, community intimidation, violence, and lost plantation productivity are common.

 
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