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Mongabay’s coverage of palm oil in 2021

  • In 2021, supply shortages partially caused by lockdowns and other COVID-19 measures sent the price of palm oil higher than ever before, reflecting a continued strong global demand for the commodity.
  • In March, Mongabay published the results of an 18-month investigation into the impact of palm oil cultivation in the Brazilian Amazon.
  • Mongabay also covered the end of Indonesia’s moratorium on permits for new plantations, and investigated allegations of abuse and land grabs at a plantation in Nigeria.

If 2021 was the year when global supply chains began to creak and groan under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic, palm oil proved to be no exception. Partially due to lockdown-induced labor shortages in Malaysia, the world’s second-largest exporter of palm oil, an imbalance between demand for the commodity and its availability on the market sent prices rocketing skyward. Despite the toll of its production on the planet’s rainforests and the people who live in them, the world’s appetite for palm oil shows no sign of slowing down. And the industry is looking for new frontiers to feed it.

Mongabay’s coverage of palm oil and its impact on the environment didn’t slow down in 2021 either. Below are some of the highlights of our reporting from across the world.

Palm oil in the Amazon

In March, Mongabay published an investigation by contributing editor Karla Mendes into a wave of palm oil expansion in the Brazilian Amazon. Eighteen months in the making, Mendes visited the northern state of Pará and meticulously documented the contamination of waterways with pesticide runoff from plantations in the region. In the Turé-Mariquita Indigenous Reserve, leaders of the Tembé people told Mendes about a years-long fight they’d been waging against Biopalma, an oil palm producer once owned by the mining giant Vale.

“We keep drinking this water because there’s no [other] option,” one woman said. “We consume a lot of water to drink, to wash, [but] the body always becomes itchy and we need to take medicine.”

In 2019, frustrated by the glacial pace of what Mendes described as “fruitless campaigning for compensation through official channels,” the Tembé staged a mass demonstration, seizing tractors and other vehicles from Biopalma in an attempt to force the company to sit down at the negotiating table.

Mongabay’s investigation into palm oil in the Amazon was covered by major press outlets in Brazil, and Mendes sat down to talk about her findings with the BBC World Service. Shortly after publication, Brazilian prosecutors said they planned to include the report as key evidence in an ongoing lawsuit against Biopalma.

Aerial view of Biopalma’s Castanheira mill and palm plantation just a few meters away from the Acará River, in Tomé-Açu municipality, in northern Amazon’s Pará state, on November 12, 2019. Image by Wilson Paz for Mongabay.

Indonesia’s moratorium on new plantings expires

In Indonesia, the world’s biggest producer of palm oil, Mongabay staff reporter Hans Nicholas Jong started off the year by covering how the destruction of forests for palm oil plantations was partly to blame for devastating floods that affected more than 256,000 people in southern Borneo. Later in the year the Indonesian government released a plan to turn its forests into a carbon sink by 2030, but Hans interviewed forestry experts who said the more ambitious scenarios described in that plan would be nearly impossible to achieve at current rates of deforestation. Despite a moratorium on permits for new plantations put into place in 2018, Hans reported that a swath of forest the size of Belgium was at risk of being chopped down inside of preexisting concessions.

Corruption and conflicts of interest continue to underpin the destruction of Indonesia’s forests for palm oil, with lawmakers being arrested for taking bribes from plantation owners and data showing that hundreds of members of parliament are invested in extractive industries. Indonesia’s land ministry defied a court order to release comprehensive data on the geolocation of oil palm plantations in the country, and in September the moratorium on new concessions was allowed to expire despite an outcry by environmental and Indigenous rights advocates.

On a more upbeat note, the government of Indonesia’s West Papua province rescinded permits for 12 oil palm concessions after an audit found that they were in violation of administrative and legal requirements. And just over a year after being arrested and detained by Indonesian authorities, Mongabay contributing editor Philip Jacobson won the 2020 Oktovianus Pogau Award for Courage in Journalism.

Deforestation for palm oil and mining in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Communities battle for justice in West and Central Africa

In March, Mongabay features writer John Cannon reported on an investigation by the Oakland Institute into ties between major investment funds and oil palm plantations in the Democratic Republic of Congo that are accused of land grabbing and human rights abuses. Included in the list of funds was the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust and the University of Michigan Endowment.

Mongabay also dove into the track record of Socfin, a Belgian-French agribusiness company with rubber and oil palm plantations dotted throughout West and Central Africa. New research published by a consortium of European advocates suggest the firm may be dodging taxes in Africa by shifting profits from the African countries where it operates into its Swiss subsidiaries.

Features writer Ashoka Mukpo investigated allegations of abusive treatment at Socfin’s Okomu oil palm plantation in Nigeria’s Edo state, where soldiers block villagers from entering and exiting their villages at night. Interviews with community leaders and a review of documents related to Okomu’s recent RSPO certification revealed serious deficiencies with the auditing process, raising questions about whether consumers should trust the RSPO’s due diligence.

Banner image: Excavator working in an oil palm plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay. 

Mongabay covers the latest news from nature’s frontline. Find our latest articles and more in our newsletter. Click the image to subscribe. Image by Maria Angeles Salazar/@masaru_arts.