Foto: Karl Vandenhole

Cursed Fruits The Palm Oil Problem

Everyone wants sustainably produced palm oil, but few are willing to pay for it. A multimedia story about greed, avarice – and hope.
Von Vanessa Steinmetz und Karl Vandenhole

A sandy track leads toward the jungle. The workers' two four-by-four vehicles splash through deep puddles as they pass the long lines of palm trees and the bushes that grow in between.

The men have affixed metal poles to the beds of the pickups, each with a sickle-shaped blade screwed onto the end.

After three-quarters of an hour, the vehicles come to a halt. Pon Churom, who goes by Pot, is the leader of the team, members of which now begin to cut ripe leaves and fruit bunches from the tops of the palm trees. Each time one of the heavy bunches plummets to earth, the ground shakes. The fruits are ready for harvest once they have turned bright red:

The Knife Men


The fields where cutters like Pot and his colleagues work are planted in rows and can already be seen from the air when approaching Krabi, a region of southern Thailand. Some of the trees are still quite small, just a tuft of long, green palm leaves protruding from the ground. Others, though, are up to 10 meters (33 feet) tall. Elaeis guineensis, oil palms, are originally from West Africa. It takes three years before their fruits can be harvested for the first time.

Global demand for the resource is massive - and it will continue to climb:


But oil palms have a bad reputation. In Indonesia, companies like the Ganda Group have clear-cut huge sections of rain forest, flattening more than 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) per day to make room for palm oil plantations, a practice that destroys the habitat of many species of plants and animals.

The slashing and burning of rainforests and peat soil releases particularly large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane.

Environmental organizations like Greenpeace accuse the palm-oil companies of destroying ecosystems and thus contributing to global warming. There have also been hundreds of instances of land theft in places like Borneo and Sumatra. Workers on the plantations earn just a few euros a day and are exposed to toxic herbicides, reports the human rights organization Amnesty International. The group says parents also force their children to work on the plantations to meet the bosses' excessive demands.

But in Thailand, things are different:

Around 80 percent of the palm oil fields here are operated by small farmers, who own an average of 7 hectares (17 acres) each. Farmers like Supat Kunniam:

'Burn Down the Forest?'


Organizations like Rainforest Rescue have demanded a boycott of palm oil, urging consumers to use local oils made from sunflower seeds or rapeseed instead. As of December 2014, the European Union has made such a boycott easier by requiring foodstuff producers to clearly indicate what kind of oil is used in their product. If consumers begin shunning palm oil, the drop in demand will have an influence on its global price, which will in turn affect the prices producers receive at the local level.

The fall in prices will be passed along by the traders to farmers like Supat Kunniam.

Making things more complicated for consumers, however, is the fact that there is no ecologically sound alternative to palm oil - a dilemma that most environmental protection organizations agree on. In comparison to other oil-producing plants, after all, the oil palm is extremely efficient:

One driver of the palm oil boom has been the admixture requirement for biofuels, which was passed by European Parliament in 2009 as part of its Renewable Energy Directive and called for at least 10 percent of fuel to come from renewable resources by 2020. The hope was to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

But then came the about-face:

The European Union is currently creating regulations aimed at eliminating the admixture of plant-based oil that relies on deforestation for its production - such as palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia -- by 2020. Otherwise, it argued, the sustainable development goals set out by the United Nations may not be reached. It was good news for environmentalists. But for palm oil farmers in Thailand, it could mean reduced demand and lower returns on their product.

For operators of large palm oil mills, price matters above all else:

In the Oil Mill


A sign standing in front of the truck scales reads 3.10 baht per kilogram, the equivalent of around 8 euro cents. That is how much farmers can currently expect to be paid for palm oil fruit by the Univanich oil mill. Last year, it was twice as high. Nevertheless, every couple of minutes, a new heavily loaded pickup or truck drives up to the mill.

When large quantities of palm oil fruit are delivered at the same time, the palm-oil mill's machines run 24 hours per day, seven days a week.

Some of the fruit that is processed here comes from Univanich's own plantations. They have been RSPO certified, which stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, founded by the environmental organization WWF almost 14 years ago. Today, RSPO has more than 3,000 members, including palm-oil companies, traders, banks and a handful of NGOs. Plantations hoping for RSPO certification must fulfill eight criteria, including a commitment to transparency and to the responsible development of new growing areas.

But demand for certified palm oil is limited.

Almost 20 percent of the palm oil produced in the world conforms to the vague RSPO requirements, but only half of that amount is sold as sustainably produced palm oil. The rest is moved at the cheaper price of standard palm oil. Univanich demands a premium of around 5 percent for its superior oil.

RSPO certification is extremely controversial.

Greenpeace, for example, has argued that the seal is "certifying destruction" while other environmental protection organizations accuse the Roundtable of "greenwashing." The main source of criticism is the lack of transparency in the production chain and the lack of monitoring to determine if producers do, in fact, adhere to RSPO criteria. Essentially, according to one allegation, the seal is akin to the industry certifying itself.

Still, members stand in opposition to slashing and burning.

The Palm Oil Innovation Group has established stricter requirements, which include regular reports from producers. Large companies like Unilever, Ferrero and Wilmar have affiliated themselves with the group. There are also a series of additional certifications for sustainable palm oil production. When it comes to palm oil in biofuels, the EU has recognized 19 sustainability certificates, but Brussels intends to develop its own standards in the future.

Sutonya Thongrak, though, has her own plan. She is a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Songkla in southern Thailand. And she wants to tackle the problem at the very beginning of the production chain: with the farmers themselves.

A New Certificate


Together with the government and a group of experts, Thongrak has developed a new standard for Thailand called TSPO. The criteria are similar to those outlined by RSPO. The concrete requirements are still being developed, but they won't be stringent enough to scare people away.

Environmental groups have to understand that people in Thailand and Indonesia are primarily concerned about making a living, with environmental considerations being secondary, says Thongrak.

Farmers like Supat Kunniam:


But farmers need to do more than just learn how to grow palm oil in a more environmentally friendly way - they also need to find a more economically efficient way. Thongrak envisions the farmers, many of them with limited education, becoming managers of their mini-plantations, including keeping close track of their production and recognizing how it can be increased. Doing so will ultimately enable them to absorb potential drops in price. She envisions a future in which economy and ecology are not mutually exclusive, but intricately linked.

Cutter Pon Churom knocks off for the day.

He lights a cigarette in front of his house, his dogs lying sleepily on the terrace. Will the new certificate help him? He takes a drag on his cigarette. He says he won't be able to work for much longer on the plantations anyway:



Autor: Vanessa Steinmetz

Camera: Karl Vandenhole

Animation: Arne Kulf

Graphic: Jennifer Friedrichs

Video Editing: Birgit Großekathöfer, Jens Radü

Motion Design: Roman Höfner

Layout: Hanz Sayami

Production: Petra Gronau

Fact Checking: Klaus Falkenberg

Editing: Thorsten Dörting, Yasmin El-Sharif

Coordination and Production: Anna Behrend

This story is part of the project Expedition BeyondTomorrow .

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