American Crime Case #48: Destroying Indonesia's Rainforests for Palm Oil

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.

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According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour in Indonesia, Malaysia and other equatorial countries to make way for palm oil production. Here villagers walk through swamp forest that has been cleared to convert it into a palm oil plantation. Photo: AP

The Crime:

In Indonesia, Malaysia, and other South Asian areas, giant multi-national agribusinesses and food corporations from the United States and other countries are driving a ruthless process of seizing ancient, precious, and irreplaceable tropical rainforest land. Indigenous peoples living there are driven out and their communities are destroyed. Beautiful forests are clear cut and burned, destroying their rich ecology and beautiful and abundant animal and plant life.

This significantly accelerates the global environmental crisis threatening the entire planet by unleashing gigantic quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases while destroying forests that absorb CO2. All this is being done to profit from the production of palm oil for the global market.

State of Emergency Environment

Revolution special issue   

This Revolution special issue focuses on the environmental emergency that now faces humanity and Earth’s ecosystems. In this issue we show:

  • the dimensions of the emergency...
  • the source of its causes in the capitalist system, and the impossibility of that system solving this crisis...
  • a way out and way forward for humanity—a revolutionary society in which we could actually live as custodians of nature, rather than as its plunderers.

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Palm oil is produced from the fruit of a palm tree that thrives in tropical climates like those found in the rainforests of South Asia. It’s valued for its versatility, shelf life, nutrition, and other qualities. Easier to extract than other vegetable oils, palm oil is also cheaper to produce. For one thing, it comes from a perennial (long-lived) tree rather than an annual plant, like soy or rapeseed, which lives for only one growing season. But cheapness and high profitability depend on cheap land for extensive plantations and on cheap labor. Plundering the land and the people of the land are essential elements of the palm oil story, and are key to its use in a broad variety of products from cosmetics, soaps, laundry detergent, toothpaste, ice cream, baked goods, chocolate, to bio fuels. Palm oil can be found in half the products on grocery store shelves in the United States. Global consumption of palm oil has gone up fivefold since 1990 and continues to grow.

With giant global capitalist agribusinesses driving production and use, farmers have cleared huge swaths of the world’s rich tropical rainforests to make room for massive palm plantations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour in Indonesia, Malaysia, and other equatorial countries to make way for palm oil production. Indonesia is said to have lost 840,000 hectares (3,250 square miles) of forest in 2012 alone. Palm oil production is the leading reason why as much as 50 percent of the world’s rainforests have disappeared in recent years.

The loss of the rainforests causes widespread habitat degradation and the massive loss of biodiversity. It is estimated that ten hectares of lowland rainforest hold as many tree species as the whole of North America, while single crop or monoculture palm oil plantations sustain only one tree species, the African oil palm. Only 10 percent of the mammals normally found in a primary rainforest ever enter oil palm plantations.

The clearing of rainforests has led to the cruel destruction of millions of animals, posing a threat to entire ecosystems. For example, Indonesia’s endangered orangutan population, which depends upon the rainforest, has dwindled by as much as 50 percent in recent years. If nothing changes, the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next five to 10 years. The orangutan plays a vital role in maintaining the health of the rainforest ecosystem. Many rainforest seeds in Indonesia can only germinate after passing through the gut of an orangutan, so this primate is essential for the existence, and regeneration, of the forest.

There are 300,000 different animals in the jungles of the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Many are injured, killed, or displaced during deforestation. This includes species like the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, sun bear, pygmy elephant, clouded leopard, and proboscis monkey, among others.

The destruction of indigenous communities living in the rainforests of Indonesia and other countries is a pre-condition for the profitability and success of the palm oil industry. In Indonesia, indigenous communities that survived and thrived for thousands of years in the rain forests have been driven out to make way for small farmers. Beginning in the 1980s, land reforms required small farmers to surrender half of their land to commercial oil palm developers in return for smaller five- to eight-acre allotments.

Indonesian palm oil plantations are thousands of acres in size, with some over 100,000 hectares (240,000 acres.) These giant capitalist operations generally provide government-subsidized loans to smaller farmers to cover seedlings, fertilizer, and other supplies. But this only serves to make these farmers dependent on palm oil production and sale, making them little more than small cogs in a global capitalist production process dominated by multinational agribusiness and food corporations which process, ship, and market the oil. Oil palm trees take about seven years to bear fruit. In the meantime, smallholders are employed as low-wage day laborers. When the palms do produce fruit and oil, these small farmers are at the mercy of fluctuating palm oil market prices for survival.

In some cases indigenous communities are directly devastated by giant U.S. multinationals. PT Harapan Sawit Lestari (locally known as simply HSL) is an oil palm plantation owned and operated by the U.S. multinational Cargill. Rainforest Action Network reports:

HSL is one of the older palm plantations in Borneo; it was carved out of primary rainforest 17 years ago, in 1993. It’s long, controversial history is representative of thousands of oil palm plantations in Indonesia, where rainforests of extraordinary biodiversity have been destroyed to make way for oil palm, while local people have been forced to give up their community forests and agricultural lands.... When the rainforest was destroyed at HSL, the watershed that provided clean water to the Indigenous Dayak who inhabit the region was also destroyed. Behind Pak Gladu’s wood-slat home, he points to a muddy trickle of water that he says was once clear and fast-flowing. “Our river is destroyed. The oil palm trees drink a lot. And the palm oil factory drinks even more,” Pak Gladu explained. With no other water source, Pak Gladu and his 12 sons, daughters, and grandchildren had no choice but to continue using the water. “One time after bathing I broke out in a horrible rash. I went to the hospital for many days. It was HSL’s palm oil mill, it is only 500 meters away, that caused this. I went to HSL’s office to demand they pay for my treatment. But they just sat silent.”

BAsics cover 600

BAsics from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian   

This system and those who rule over it are not capable of carrying out economic development to meet the needs of the people now, while balancing that with the needs of future generations and requirements of safeguarding the environment. They care nothing for the rich diversity of the earth and its species, for the treasures this contains, except when and where they can turn this into profit for themselves....These people are not fit to be the caretakers of the earth.

—Bob Avakian, BAsics 1:29

When rainforests are destroyed, the livelihoods of indigenous peoples are destroyed, and they are forced to become wage slaves for the palm plantations, or cast off altogether. Other abuses, such as child labor, are rampant in remote plantation areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. Children are made to carry large loads of heavy fruit, weed fields, and spend hours every day bent over collecting fruit from the plantation floor. Heat exhaustion, and cuts, and bruises from climbing thorny oil palms are commonplace. More often than not, children receive little or no pay for their efforts.

The destruction of rainforests to make way for monoculture palm oil trees has other devastating consequences. In 1997 and1998, for example, forest fires raged across Indonesia for months sending smoky haze across the region. More than 100 oil palm companies are accused of setting fires to clear land, blur boundaries, and expand the plantations under their control. In Indonesia, more than 10,000 square miles of rainforests have been torched releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. Fires in 2015 alone added more than two billion tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Fires set to clear forests in peat-heavy areas (swampy layers of partially decayed vegetation up to 60 feet deep beneath most of the forests) can smolder for months or even years. The degradation of forests and areas heavy in peat account for over 60 percent of carbon emissions in Indonesia, which is the third worst greenhouse gas emitter on the planet. Indonesia’s peat lands cover less than 0.1 per cent of the Earth’s surface, but are responsible for four percent of yearly global emissions. Ten million of Indonesia’s 22.5 million hectares of peat land have already been deforested and drained.

Wastewater ponds at palm oil refineries release lots of methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide. All told, tropical deforestation, much of it tied to palm oil production, accounts for 10 percent of global carbon emissions—accelerating the global climate crisis.

The frenetic chase for maximum returns drives the large-scale capitalist production of palm oil, a highly profitable food product, leaving a wide path of destruction in its wake and threatening the future existence of humanity itself.

The Criminals

U.S. agribusiness monopolies including Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill (as well as monopoly capitalist conglomerates from other countries) are major producers and suppliers of palm oil. The largest importer of palm oil into the U.S., Cargill both owns and operates palm oil plantations in Indonesia and purchases and trades palm oil and its derivatives worldwide. Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) purchases palm oil from mills supplied by plantations where Amnesty International documented severe labor rights abuses.

Subway, MacDonald’s, Yum!, Taco Bell, KFC, Wendy’s, Dairy Queen, Burger King, and other U.S. fast food companies (as well as major packaged food, cosmetics, and other corporations) routinely use palm oil without regard to the damage to the environment, indigenous communities, and the workers who depend on the industry for a livelihood. In March 2014, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a scorecard grading U.S. fast food companies that use palm oil in their products. Of 10 fast food companies examined on a 100-point score on deforestation, supply chain transparency, and supply chain traceability, only two—Subway and MacDonald’s—were able get any points. And even those two were on the lower end of the 100-point scale. Yum! Taco Bell, KFC, Wendy’s, Dairy Queen, and Burger King all received 0 out of 100 points.

PepsiCo, Campbell Foods, Kraft, Heinz, and other well-known brands are large purchasers of palm oil from companies like Wilmar, notorious for worker and environmental abuses. PepsiCo uses 450,000 metric tons of palm oil annually in products like Quaker health bars, Frito Lay chips, and cookies.

The Indonesian government. Indonesia is a country dominated by imperialism, especially U.S. imperialism, and the actions of Indonesia’s government reflect this relationship. It routinely grants concessions to U.S. and other global multinationals for oil palm development in forested areas, leading to widespread deforestation in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The Indonesian government issues land leases on favorable terms to an elite, influential pool of big capitalists such as Indonesia’s powerful and globally connected Widjaja family empire, which has been an ongoing target of heavy criticism from green groups for contributing to mass deforestation and the endangerment of wildlife.

The Alibi

In June 2014, five large palm oil producers, including Cargill, issued a Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto (SPOM) in which they claim to be applying Earth- and people-friendly practices to the production of palm oil. This follows on other initiatives from palm oil producers, such as RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil), through which they claim to produce “certified sustainable palm oil” to “minimize the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities in palm oil-producing regions.”

The Real Motive

These manifestos from the capitalist-imperialist agribusiness and food conglomerates that produce and use palm oil are a sham. Greenpeace International has denounced RSPO as “little more than greenwash,” pointing out that various RSPO certified producers carry out destructive and rapid deforestation practices. An Amnesty International investigation revealed that the RSPO acts as a shield to deflect scrutiny of oppressive and destructive production practices.

Palm oil production, like the production of every other capitalist commodity, is governed by the rules of capitalism. They dictate that the pursuit of profit, in competition with other capitalists, is the most essential and sacred goal of production. In a world dominated by imperialist, capital-rich industrialized countries turn the less powerful and less “advanced” countries and regions into sources of cheap, but essential, resources utilizing their financial, political, and military power to ensure favorable conditions for such investments. It is this relationship that makes the production of things vital to humans, such as food, a source of misery and worse for much of humanity. The U.S., as one of the world’s major imperialist players is neck deep in this dead-end (and deadly) form of economic practice

Letter from a reader

On “American Crime, Case #100: 1965 Massacre in Indonesia”

I learned a lot from the American Crime Series this week on Indonesia (on this page). This is definitely an American Crime! But beyond the U.S. corporations who profit from the devastation of the environment for palm oil production, the U.S. government should have been listed as the arch-criminal. The bloody 1965 coup engineered by the CIA installed a regime that then, and now, employs naked terror to enforce the interests of U.S. imperialism. The motives at the time, as pointed out in “American Crime, Case #100: 1965 Massacre in Indonesia” were geopolitical: to stem—by filling the rivers of Indonesia with the bodies of murdered communists—the tide of the world revolution sweeping Asia at that time, which was inspired and supported by Mao’s communist revolution in China. But this coup also resulted in installing a regime utterly subservient to U.S. economic interests. The Indonesian economic policies that drive small farmers to clear-cut land for palm oil production serve the interests of U.S. corporations. That’s not only or mainly because the rulers of Indonesia are corrupt; the basic parameters of what kind of government is allowed to rule in Indonesia were set through the coup. They remain in place today. 

I had a friend who was a Rainforest Action Network activist in Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), Indonesia. Several years ago, because of family ties, she was invited to an event at the U.S. embassy. She confronted an Indonesian government official there over clear-cutting of rainforests on Irian Jaya by Japanese logging conglomerates (which has had a devastating impact, similar to the palm oil plantations). Immediately, a U.S. embassy official pulled her aside and told her that in Indonesia, people are killed and tortured for saying things like that in public, and that her U.S. passport and family ties would probably prevent that in this case, but she better not do it again. Ordinary Indonesians who would expose and protest have no such protection. 

It is ultimately the U.S. military, and regimes allied with the U.S. and their (often U.S. trained) militaries, who are responsible for the political conditions that make crimes like the palm oil plantations possible. 

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