The Cost of Palm Oil

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Think Forward

The Cost of Palm Oil

by
Ben Lilliston

"The day the (palm) seeds arrived in our country on the plane, I wondered, `what are these seeds?'" Matilda Pilacapio told us at a meeting in late September. Pilacapio is a human rights advocate from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea and she stopped by our Minneapolis office on the way to a meeting with Cargill—the largest palm oil importer in the U.S.

Papau New Guinea
, a former British colony, contains some of the last remaining intact rainforests and 5 percent of global biodiversity. Palm oil first came to the island in 1994, when Pilacapio was the country's Minister of Agriculture. Palm quickly replaced coconut that had been grown on plantations owned by British companies and the British government's Commonwealth Development Corporation.

"Life has dramatically changed," Pilacapio told us. "We have a traditional life of sharing and giving. What we have, we share with our village. Now, our people live in a monetary world. Our people are at a crossroads."

In the mid-1990s, the World Bank required a number of structual adjustment programs in Papua New Guinea as conditions for a loan to the country's government, according to Pilacapio. Among the changes, were the user pay system—where people pay for things like education and health care—but also land registration (which opened up land that had previously been controlled by Indigenous peoples). Part of the World Bank loan to the country was to develop palm oil plantations, says Pilacapio.

Cargill owns three palm oil mills in Papua New Guinea. The company took over the mill in Milne Bay, where Pilacapio lives three years ago. She currently works with the Milne Bay Women in Agriculture to strengthen traditional agriculture systems in response to Cargill's expanding oil palm plantation in the region.

Pilacapio said young people in Papau New Guinea who want to farm no longer have access to land because so much is going toward palm oil plantations. Previously able to provide food for its own population, the growth in palm oil plantations has led Papua New Guinea to become heavily dependent on food imports.

Pilacapio came to visit Cargill as part of an effort by Rainforest Action Network to get the company to improve its practices at palm oil plantations, starting with simple things like creating buffer zones to protect water systems. Thus far, the company has not budged. Pilacapio is asking Cargill to: 1) stop the expansion of palm oil plantations, particularly from traditional landowners and onto virgin lands; 2) share its profits with local governments and landowners; 3) provide workers with better wages and working conditions; and 4) clean up water that is downstream from their milling plant.

So, what is the cost of palm oil? In the marketplace, the palm oil produced in Pilacapio's community certainly doesn't reflect all its costs, including damage to a traditional culture, diminished food security in the region, the loss of biodiversity and effects on global climate change. The "monetary world" Pilacapio describes is not working.

Ben Lilliston is the former Associate Editor for the Corporate Crime Reporter, a frequently published writer, and co-author of the book Genetically Engineered Foods: A Guide for Consumers (Avalon).

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.

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