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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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In isolated cases, communities working with supportive local governments have won the cancelation of planned palm oil plantations, but none of the past decade’s protests, riots, or acts of monkeywrenching have managed to shut down already operating plantations. The villagers of Semunying Jaya are typical in their fierce opposition to new plantation expansion – and they are also typical in their failure to halt Duta Palma’s forest clearing. Given this fact, it seems only fair to ask: Can grassroots community protests succeed in changing how the palm oil companies operate?

Brihannala Morgan, director of the US-based  Borneo Project (an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project), is more measured. “Community actions create urgency and allow farmers to become political actors, creating a movement with potential,” she tells me. “But will this blockade really impact these communities? It is a critical step but not enough.”When I pose the question to Hariansah, a leading farmers’ rights advocate in Sumatra, he tells me that actions like Jamaludin’s are the first step in reforming intractable companies. “We have to go out and make the companies see that we cannot be overlooked,” he says. “Jamaludin is an example of what can be achieved when we are brave.”

The crux of the problem is this: The palm oil companies have few incentives to compromise with local communities. The agribusiness corporations behind the palm oil boom can grab land from local communities because they are well-endowed with legal connections, money, and the support of Indonesia’s powerful military. Forest communities have none of those assets, and their calls to alter the plantation economy go unheeded because such demands go against the web of relationships that bind together Indonesia’s ruling class.

Take Darmex Argo, the Indonesian conglomerate that owns Duta Palma. The company is among a group of powerful palm oil, logging, and mining companies that were founded by the political and military elite during the natural resource exploitation rush of the 1990s, when Indonesia’s then-dictator, Suharto, used the nation’s forest and mineral wealth to enrich a close-knit oligarchy in return for its support. When Suharto was toppled in 1998 the oligarchy quickly gained control of national-level politics and retrenched its power to access new land for logging and mining.

One of Darmex Argo’s largest shareholders is Sardan Marbun, a former general who is a prominent fundraiser for Indonesia’s ruling Democrat Party. According to Chandra Hamzah, deputy chairman of Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, the industrial exploitation of Indonesia’s forests has been a source of “unlimited corruption.”

Morgan believes that the movement should focus on individual land-conflict cases and legal reforms in the national congress. Hariansah agrees. His group is pushing for legal reforms that limit plantation expansion and recognize small farmers’ rights. Since 2007 Hariansah has worked with a group of Indonesian environmental justice organizations at the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to prompt international diplomatic pressure for their cause. But after the submission of three long reports chronicling the cultural damage done by agribusiness, no real progress has been achieved at theUN venue.

On the demand side of the palm oil supply chain, publicly shaming consumer product companies for their links to destructive plantations has had considerably more success.  Greenpeace sparked an online media storm with the release of a witty video clip that connected Nestlé’s Kit Kat bar to the suffering of orangutans. After a first round of denials, Nestlé quickly changed its tone and agreed to a comprehensive palm oil sourcing policy. Consumer products behemoth Unilever, after suffering a consumer campaign that connected palm oil-related destruction to its Dove brand of soaps, has become an advocate for more responsible palm oil, backing up its policy commitments by investing in its own plantation in Sumatra where it can monitor environmental and labor conditions. Both Nestlé and Unilever have tried to cut out palm oil suppliers that are expanding into forests.

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