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The Palm Oil Journey
The Palm Oil Journey
News Apr 14, 2013

One particular resource stands out in its ability to transcend its position in nature as a fruit and work its way into all manner of day to day items.

As of January 2019, The Forest Trust has become Earthworm Foundation.

If we were to grab the closest few people to us and all sit in a circle and think about one product that we consume in everyday life, each of us will probably come up with a different product that is used for a different application, perhaps 10 different products; foods, electronics, clothes, cosmetics – if we were to go into specifics the list would be non-exhaustive. A non-exhaustive list of products that are manufactured every day all over the world from a varyingly exhaustive set of raw resources; oil, stone, wood, cotton, leather, palm oil – again the list could be long.

But one particular resource stands out in its ability to transcend its position in nature as a fruit and work its way into all manner of day to day items, from being an ingredient in around 40% of supermarket foods to bio diesel, cosmetics, animal feeds, glues, lubricants etc. Again the list goes on and on and continues to expand as this universal fruit is studied and developed in order to provide solutions to all manner of personal and industrial applications. Palm oil is so widely used because it can be. Its unique composition and un-rivalled plantation yield has shot it to the forefront of our day to day lives. This wasn’t the case 40 years ago, but with developments in food technology it has become a cheaper and more abundant alternative to a number of our traditional crops and fats – and it is likely to stay this way.

But where does palm oil come from? I’d like people to think about not only what they are eating and using, but what sits behind it – because there is often an interesting story to tell.

Sometimes that story is horrific, but there isn’t always such an evil face attached to the products of globalisation. These stories, when told, connect us to deep, untouched beautiful forests; wide and ranging flowing rivers, fishing communities whose lives are so incredibly far removed from the first worlds’ but whose lifestyle and surroundings is nothing short of enviable.

Connecting with the beauty that exists within the products gives more value to what we are consuming and is the least we can do to show respect for the people who are involved in delivering them to us. Taking a negative approach to products and their say, environmental impact, by automatically attributing appalling images of sweatshops and scenes of rainforest horror to products is like if we were to construct a wall of disrespect right in the face of knowledge. With this thought, knowledge ends at the product – it tastes good or it doesn’t, it is useful or it isn’t, it’s worked or it hasn’t. It doesn’t matter what something is or where it came from, simply that it just ‘is’.

I don’t want to put out an idea that palm oil is either good or bad, it’s a double edged sword, but merely provide the opportunity to look a little further behind the product and to try and get people interested in the landscapes that are affected by the products that we use. Because, they are beautiful landscapes filled with beautiful people, simple, yet amazing animals and incredibly lush and diverse flora.

These are landscapes that have often been altered through remarkable human innovation. Innovation that has allowed them and their parts to be used to the benefit of everyone on the planet. If you want to attach a human face to the end of the line of this beauty and innovation, you need only to look in the mirror or at the face of the closest person to you.

The start of the line – absolute paradise. This scene could be anything, and there are innumerable places like it on earth, but in the case of palm oil, which grows within about 10 degrees either side of the equator, it is the Northern tip of Borneo looking out towards the South China Sea. Borneo is a fascinating and mind boggling place. I don’t think any one person could truly understand all that it is and represents. It’s the most bio diverse place on the planet and home to the oldest rainforests, at 130 million years. Since 1996 alone, over 361 new species of plants and animals have been discovered, likely to be but a small drop in the ocean of what exists there. But of all of the 3,000 species of trees that set their roots there, one stands out visually, socially and economically as having lasting effect on the landscape – palm oil.

Palm Oil plantations are lasting, ever present and providing the correct climatic conditions and human intervention will grow to quickly dominate landscapes. Here the plantation flows from the left of the picture down towards the sea. It reaches the road and with the ocean grips the last remnants of forest as a thin strip on land not suitable for productive palm trees. These forests are being squeezed further and further to the most unreachable and un-explored areas of this huge natural paradise. The ruggedness and isolation of inner Borneo is the only thing saving it from the wave of palm oil plantations, a testament to its own resilience. And it’s there in the mountains, the life blood of Borneo, where life continues to strive and adapt, as it has for millions of years and as it will do far into the future.

People live and work in and around palm oil plantations. This is common for all plantations, perhaps with the exception of crops that are able to be harvested through mechanical means, like the vast wheat fields of the USA or the birch plantations of South Eastern Finland, where technology dominates. These people are the work force, there is no machine that can currently match this man power, palm oil is fully dependent on these people to harvest the fruits. They were there before the plantations, except in the cases of migrant workers, of which there are many, and they will be there for generations to come. Their cultural stories are treasures and their customs are distinct as they are varied – no matter how hybridised they become with the arrival of western culture.

Plantations aren’t always vast seas of monotonous, uniform trees. Colours exist within the plantations and life goes on. These children don’t yet know what a palm tree is, but they will, they will also grow to have a much different perspective on the environment to what their ancestors would have had. They are products of their time and environment and they’ll learn that trees are there to be worked, and with work comes money and stability. Whereas in the past, their ancestors tended the land to provide for their immediate family, these children will be tending land to provide to the entire, growing global population.

Although the palm oil industry, at least that which produces crude and refined oil, is dominated by a relatively small amount of local and global businesses, at the ground level the family farmer produces most of the fruit that is eventually processed. It isn’t always the situation, as seen below, but families are an integral part of the global supply chain, a part that is often hidden deep within a complex web of traders and middlemen. This scene isn’t too different to what we could find in the suburban first world, that small scattering of ripe apples that has fallen on the front lawn has been replaced with giant fruit bunches the size of large watermelons. You might want to collect these apples and head down to the local market to sell them. While this household will sell off these fruits to whomever wants to come pay and collect them, with a growing, insatiable global appetite for palm oil, it won’t be long until someone is along to pick them up.

Thinking of the word ‘corporate’ and applying it to the palm oil industry surely conjures up scenes akin to above in our minds. Like nature, this plantation has been developed to be perfect – the most productive and efficient it can be whilst remaining the least resource intensive. The mill, where the fruits are processed, is in the middle of this plantation, just off to the left of the picture, cutting down transport times. These transport times affect the quality of the fruit, as every hour the fruit is off the tree and unprocessed, fatty acids develop that gradually affect its ability to be used later as an effective fat. Workers live at this plantation in houses provided to them by the company. They are paid generally a good wage and have healthcare and basic amenities made available to them. Good road access allow road tankers easy access, tankers that often take the crude palm oil that has been processed at the mill, that now resembles a thick orange goo, to harbour side refineries. Where again, the crude oil can be refined and fed straight onto ships that set off to all corners of the world. When we look at it, the direct link between the palm oil that we consume in products and the ground where it was produced, can, in the case of larger plantation companies, be astonishingly short – without ourselves expressly know it, bringing us all but closer to the landscapes that shape our consumption.

This tree is probably about 10 years old and is mature enough to be pumping out ripe 20kg bunches of fruit, 4 tonnes of fruit per hectare every year. The worker probably only has his hat on as somebody is taking his photo, it’s certainly too hot to be wearing a top, but this is what he does all day, every day. He uses a large knife attached to the end of the pole to saw the fruit off the tree. This under canopy stretches on for as far as you could walk in a day, even more in fact as scenes like this stretch the length and breadth of Borneo. If whilst walking you were to look up at every tree you pass, every 10 metres or so on each side, you’ll see these bunches of fruit. The amount of fruit that these trees collectively produce is astonishing, never ending and ever growing. You could easily understand that, like how man strives to harness the energy that wind and water provides, we strive to harness the goods that these trees provide, we need to.

Ground zero, here it begins, the first step in a series of bunching, collecting, moving, trading, exchanging, washing, crushing, refining and so on until we are left with an oil, soft or hard, which resembles little of where it came from. You hold a single palm fruit, about the size of a sparrows egg, in one hand a clear liquid is pooled in the other – it’s the same thing but looks and feels markedly different. This disconnect between a raw product and what we consume only stretches the relationship between landscapes and people ever towards the brink. This crucial relationship that has existed since time began has been the cornerstone of empires and the essence of developing communities. It feels to be ever in danger of breaking down completely, and in many quarters of society, it already has.

Goodbye. The last step from where the fruit will remain a fruit bore from the forest, to where it will turn into a global commodity – crude palm oil. This is a weighing station, which records the weight of each delivery to the mill. Keeping track of payments and weights is an important business. Although prices fluctuate, a single tonne of crude palm oil will cost around 900 USD, so this is big business. Looking at the state of the truck we might not think this, but it does its job. The late afternoon setting sun and motionless of the photo reminds us that this island is timeless, beautiful and full of bounty. The beauty will remain, but the bounty has changed over the years. Before it was logs, destined for our furniture and paper, at least in the case of furniture the quality and durability of this tropical timber validated its transformation into a product, one that deserves to be used and enjoyed for generations, we can probably all think back to wooden furniture we used to play on as children. Now it is palm oil, a fruit who’s life span as a product is a mere flicker compared to the great trees that have were removed many years ago, in the future, who knows what this island will provide.

A worker piles in the spent carcasses of palm oil bunches, fruits removed, to furnaces. The palm oil mill runs nonstop, and so the piles of carcasses to be burnt remain ever at the same level. The heat generated here is turned into power which is fed back into the mill, reducing the reliance on the external grid and making it possible to construct mills in ever far reaching areas – close to the resource but far away from civilisation.

The frontier, much like Borneo, the island of Papua New Guinea is as diverse as it is large. There is a different way of life here, a way of life here for the people that have existed for over 50,000 years on this island. The fact that agriculture developed on the highlands here over 6,000 years ago leads us to think ‘why’ a place like this would even need industrial plantations. But sadly it isn’t their choice to make, well it is, but there are certain groups that make sure that there is only one option for them to take, development. Not for themselves, but for the global good. It’s prime arable land for palm oil, and saving some remarkable technological intervention, the products that your children consume will increasingly come from here. It is a land of complicated beauty, a stunning and misunderstood landscape.

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