Palm oil, a form of vegetable oil found in many household products, is big business in Indonesia. Unfortunately, that business is killing the rain forest and exploiting its native people.
Chocolate bars, shampoo, margarine, frozen pizza, ice cream and lipstick all contain palm oil. It is a ubiquitous ingredient, desirable for both its great quantity and its low cost. In the realm of fried food, it is superior to other commonly used oils, having a high oxidative stability and yielding tastier dishes. Of the 144 million tonnes of vegetable oil produced each year, over a third of it is palm oil.
But growing demand has led to serious deforestation. Indonesia is today the largest producer of palm oil, and, according to Greenpeace, increased cultivation led it to become the largest instigator of deforestation between 2009 and 2011.
Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Nils Klawitter details the land conflicts that have arisen between multinationals hungry for the oil and the Indonesians being ousted from their disappearing properties. Mercenaries employed by palm plantations such as Asiatic Persada will kick locals off their land or drag them to work in the oil mills. Titus, an Indonesian from the village of Bungku, was forcibly taken to one such mill on March 5. His family and tribe followed after him in protest, only for Asiatic Persada thugs to beat the villagers, sending six to the hospital and one man to the grave.
Klawitter states that there have been hundreds of similar conflicts across Indonesia in recent years, and the government is reluctant to check plantations’ civil or environmental abuses. The palm oil sector is now the cornerstone of the Indonesian economy and law enforcement is subservient to a government that is subservient to the multinationals.
The international community also bears responsibility for these abuses, as palm oil stock remains highly desirable. Powerful entities such as the World Bank, Deutsche Bank and Allianz have major stakes in Indonesian investments.
In the case of the World Bank, it has approved several loans to Wilmar, the former owner of Asiatic Persada. However, Wilmar had to sell off its subsidiary when the native conflicts created an “intolerable situation” for the publicly traded company.
Asiatic Persada was subsequently bought by Ganda Group. Its chief, Ganda Sitorus, owns several companies, the boards of which are staffed with former high-ranking members of the Indonesian government, including a general, attorney general and police chief. It is suspected that with these political connections, Asiatic Persada will not need to worry about future “intolerable situations.”