With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Palm Oil is Colonialism's Continuing Nightmare

In the global protests against Vladimir Putin’s “special operation,” the sunflower has become a potent emblem of solidarity with Ukraine, for which it is not only a national symbol but a key export. Native to the Americas, it was established in Eastern Europe by the turn of the nineteenth century, and ever since Ukraine and Russia have cultivated it and prized its oil. Together the two countries now produce at least 70 percent of the globe’s sunflower oil.

But the invasion has disrupted this export, sending the global price of all cooking oils skyrocketing. This has forced fast and processed food companies to scramble for alternatives. The resulting price hikes on these commodities threaten to put an essential foodstuff, cooking oil, out of reach for many of the world’s poor. And it has caused a dangerous resurgence of palm oil as a substitute, to the great dismay of environmental and human rights campaigners. This demand has so greatly increased the market value of palm oil that Indonesia, which exports 56 percent of the world’s supply, announced this week that it would halt all exports until it could secure its own country’s food supply. This move will certainly only further destabilize markets.

Over the past decades, environmental and human rights organizations have had some measure of success in drawing attention to the dire impacts of palm oil production, notably in Indonesia and Malaysia, which together export 85 percent of the world’s supply, as well as in Latin America, West Africa, and other tropical regions where oil palms are grown. Taking inspiration from earlier consumer-oriented campaigns to associate diamond mining with war and violence, several large global NGOs have used the term “conflict palm oil.” The term seeks to draw attention to the link between the expansion of palm oil plantations deep into tropical forests and the systematic abuse of workers and the environment. The expansion of oil palm farming is often accomplished through violent land-grabs that robs Indigenous people and peasants of their traditional territories. Palm barons are known to employ gangs and death squads to intimidate or murder journalists, trade unionists, and environmentalists.

In the last decade, a number of high-profile brands, including Iceland-brand frozen foods and Barilla (the world’s largest pasta maker), have bowed to pressure and removed palm oil from their products, turning to sunflower, soy, coconut, and other oils as substitutes. Others have pledged to purchase only from suppliers who abide by voluntary (and dubious) “sustainable” benchmarks. But with prices of alternative oils rising as markets rush to compensate for the disruption to Ukraine’s and Russia’s sunflower exports, those modest advances are in jeopardy. Palm oil remains a reliably cheap, readily available alternative. Environmental campaigners fear another wave of land-grabbing and forest-burning for palm oil production will follow, as happened in the wake of decisions in the United States (2007) and EU (2009) to increase the proportion of ethanol in gasoline, leading to a boom in the market for biofuels.

But the link between palm oil and war has a longer history, and that history has a lot to teach us about the capitalist economy of which we are a part.

Palm oil has been used for millennia in West Africa, where it remains not only a staple of the diet but also a substance freighted with cultural, spiritual, and economic significance. The term “palm oil” refers in fact to two separate products: the oil pressed from the fleshy orange seed bunches of the oil palm, and the distinct, harder-to-access oil locked in the kernels. While oil can be extracted from at least three different palm species, Elaeis guineensis, native to West Africa, is the most common cash crop. In its native region, the cultivation, harvest, and refining of its fruits have often constituted the bedrock of economic relations. As oil palm historian Jonathan Robins reports, it was critical to trade relations between the regions’ kingdoms and empires, including during the period of the transatlantic slave trade. But it was only after the British Empire banned the slave trade in 1807 that Liverpool’s merchants, denied their source of wealth, began to take an interest in the substance. Europe’s industrial revolution demanded lubricants for factory machines and the locomotives that brought their goods to market.

Read entire article at Boston Review