Crisis Among the Palms

How your retirement account may be fueling rain-forest destruction.

| Spring 2018

  • Riau, Indonesia - October 13, 2014: Cleared land for palm oil plantation at Tesso Nilo National Park, Sumatera, Indonesia. The land is part of protected forest and threatened by the illegal palm oil expansion.
    Photo by Clarbondioxide
  • Plantation workers prepare to unload freshly harvested oil palm fruit bunches at a collection point.
    Photo by migin

In May 2015, villagers in Butaw, Liberia, heard a rumor that the CEO of Golden Veroleum, a palm oil company that is one of the few sources of employment in the area, was coming for a visit. It was big news, and the Butaw Youth Association saw an opportunity. They wrote the CEO a letter requesting a meeting: “Please address our plight,” they insisted, by which they meant the theft of their families’ lands, grinding poverty, and wage labor on the plantations that never yielded enough to get beyond mere survival. But the company official declined their invitation, setting off an uprising fueled by years of unrest, and a vicious backlash.

“The Liberian Police arrested peaceful citizens and beat them,” D. Terry Panyonnoh, vice president of the Butaw Youth Association, told reporters. “They were looting our homes, towns, and villages, from May into June. All of us arrested were tortured.”

By the time the dust settled, a half dozen SUVs had been trashed, dozens of people had been brutally beaten and arrested, villagers’ homes were ransacked and looted by police, and the company was forced to shut down operations until human rights agencies could sort out the facts. Though the company – part of a global agribusiness empire run by Malaysian multinational Golden Agri Resources – has undertaken some reforms since, recent reports suggest that the villagers’ plight is largely unchanged.

A month later, in June 2015, across the world in northern Guatemala, effluent from ponds on the property of a local palm oil company called REPSA overflowed into the Pasión River – the lifeblood of a region that was until recently one of the world’s great rainforests but is now largely converted to cattle pasture and plantations. The spill dumped enough malathion, an organophosphate insecticide, to kill hundreds of thousands of fish in what a local court would later rule an “ecocide.” When the verdict came down, the judge ordered REPSA to shut down for six months to allow for an independent investigation. The next day, angry employees of the company blockaded the courthouse and kidnapped three of the plaintiffs. A fourth plaintiff, Indigenous Queq’chi Maya schoolteacher Rigoberto Lima Choc, was shot and killed. The company forced the court to have the judge removed and the verdict was essentially nullified. Two years later, no suspect has been identified for Choc’s murder, and REPSA continues to sell its palm oil to the world market.



That same summer, El Niño conditions meant a months-long delay in the arrival of the annual monsoon rains, and the forests and peatlands of Indonesia were on fire. The blazes were linked to land clearing for the country’s expanding palm oil and pulpwood plantations. Across the vast archipelago a plume of haze blocked out the sky, leading to international outcry and bumping Indonesia up to the dubious status of the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to evacuate to emergency medical centers in a health crisis that a Harvard University study estimates will contribute to over 100,000 early deaths. Zenzi Suhadi, a forest campaigner with Indonesia’s largest environmental organization Walhi (Friends of the Earth, Indonesia), called the fires a conspiracy. “Peatlands have existed in Indonesia for thousands of years, but [major] forest fires just started in the 1990s,” Suhadi pointed out. “What else is this but a premeditated crime?”

What all these incidents have in common is the red-gold fruit of the oil palm, the source of the most widely traded vegetable oil on the planet.