By Àngela Corbalán, Oxfam’s Head of EU Communications. Photos: Des Syafrizal/Oxfam.
Palm oil is everywhere, in food and everyday items you don’t even realize. It’s in your morning bowl of cereal, your afternoon biscuits, your dinner pizza, in soap and even in the biodiesel that fuels your car. And sadly, in many places, it comes with human and environmental costs.
To find out why, I joined an Oxfam field trip to Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer. My colleagues and I wanted to talk to those affected by big palm oil plantations.
Plantation workers in Pelalawan district, Riau province.
Before the trip, we had found out that high-ranking executives from a company that sells palm oil to Cargill, a supplier of food industry giants such as Kellogg and General Mills, were standing trial for starting a fire last year in Riau province, on the island of Sumatra. This was in order to make way for palm oil plantations, and it’s alleged that it contributed to the massive forest fires that created a haze affecting people across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. My research colleagues say that this fire released into the atmosphere CO2 emissions equivalent to the annual emissions from more than 10 million cars. That’s the same as the emissions for a full year from all of the cars in Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago combined. Can you imagine?
Aerial photo shows forest fires in Riau Province, 2013. Antara/Virna Puspa Setyorini
Also during our trip we saw forests burning. Pelalawan district, Riau province.
No wonder Indonesia is one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases. This sort of devastating practise drives global warming.
The villagers I talked to in Riau province have seen the weather change over the past 15-20 years. “The weather started to change around five years after the palm oil company took over our land. It used to be cool and tepid, but these days it’s dry, and we’re seeing more frequent droughts, and floods have occurred since the late 90s. Wells have dried up; whereas before we could get water by digging one meter, now we need to dig over 10 meters deep. Floods also impact those with land close to the river” a village elder, who cannot be identified for security reasons, told us.
As the climate grows more unpredictable, food prices are increasingly volatile. “Chilli is quite pricey at the moment because there is little supply since the dry season started earlier than usual,” explained a woman villager. Chilli is a common spice in Indonesia. It is used to season curries, noodle soaked broths and is the base of a very popular condiment called sambal.
But the problems faced by the communities we met do not end there.
Polluted river. Pelalawan district, Riau province.
The people we talked to said their lives had become harder since the company set foot in their villages. The company struck a deal with the local government so the villagers had no choice but to give their land away for very little money. The company destroyed their forest and polluted their river, affecting their ability to feed their families and make a decent living. Villagers had to abandon their old village when the palm oil company moved in. They could no longer get water from the river.
Abandoned home, Pelalawan district, Riau province.
A female villager noted that she was much happier before the company arrived. “I didn’t need to worry about putting food on the table for my children. We just picked the food we needed from our land. We grew rice, corn, cucumber and chilli. We also got fish and water from the river. By selling our own vegetables and rubber we could even save some money and send our children to school and visit the doctor when we needed it. But the company destroyed our livelihoods.”
A villager. Pelalawan district, Riau province.
Most villagers got offered a job with the company as labourers, but many have quit because the company has not fulfilled their financial commitments. In addition to working as labourers, some had to work somewhere else and even get their children to help them out. Some children dropped out of school because their parents could not afford the fees.
After talking to these Indonesian villagers and seeing how they live, I cannot look at my bowl of cereal the same way. It is clear to me now that our favourite food brands like Kellogg and General Mills should do better to ensure that their suppliers do not pollute our planet and leave people hungry. Join me in calling on these powerful companies to do better.