Rumble in the Jungle: Activists vs Palm Oil

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David Gilbert


Wake up in the morning. Enjoy a warm, soapy shower. Eat a bowl of cereal, perhaps with soy milk. Dab on some lipstick ...

Perform any of those mundane tasks and chances are you've done your bit to destroy a patch of rainforest somewhere in Indonesia where vast stands of virgin trees have been cut, bulldozed, and burned to clear land for palm oil plantations. Once used primarily in cosmetics, palm oil, which is free of artery-clogging trans fats, has become the ingredient du jour in processed foods. In the United States, consumption of the stuff has tripled over the past five years. Growing oil palms is now the largest cause of deforestation in Indonesia, contributing to global warming and destroying crucial habitat for the country's endangered orangutan population, which has fallen by half since the onset of the palm-oil boom.

Early this month, the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network (RAN) published a scathing report linking agribusiness giant Cargill, Inc., the leading U.S. importer of palm oil, to rainforest destruction. Cargill sells oil to large food companies like General Mills, Nestle, and Kraft. RAN followed up with a demonstration at Cargill's Minnesota headquarters, during which seven protestors were hauled away by police.

RAN accuses Cargill of violating the principles of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an eco-certification group that includes members from the industry (Cargill is a prominent one) and environmental organizations. Of the many charges in the report, the most surprising is an allegation that Cargill, in addition to owning two large palm plantations in Indonesia, secretly owns and operates two other plantations that are clearing and burning rainforests. The report also says the company is buying additional palm oil from companies "closely associated" with rainforest clear-cutting.

"Cargill is trying to have their cake and eat it too," said Leila Salazar-Lopez, campaign coordinator for RAN. "While Cargill is proclaiming their commitments to RSPO standards, they're going ahead and doing whatever they want to rainforests, waterways, and community lands."

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David Gilbert

Cargill responded with a statement entitled "Cargill Sets the Record Straight on False Accusations Made by RAN."

"The title pretty much sums it up," Lori Johnson, a Cargill spokeswoman, said in an interview. "There are a lot of allegations in the report, but none of them are true. Some of the accusations are simply ludicrous, like we have secret plantations some place. The answer to that's just no."

In a response to Cargill's denial, RAN stood firm. "No one wishes more than we do that Cargill wasn't destroying rainforests. Pictures and maps don't lie, however," the organization said in a press release. "We stand by the evidence released in our report that Cargill's plantations in Indonesia are cutting down rainforests, violating the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and are out of compliance with Indonesian law."

What's a conscientious consumer to do? Amid this flurry of accusations and counter-accusations, it's important to remember one fundamental truth. The palm oil industry in general still has a long way to go before it can be called sustainable. Palm oil may be good for our circulatory systems, but there's no denying that it's wreaking havoc on the environment.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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