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In Your Palm

how to fight big palm oil

a film by. Carter Kirilenko
Country.  Canada
RUN time .23:55Min

““In a powerful combination of true human stories and striking visuals, In Your Palm exposes the harsh realities for humans living next to large scale palm oil plantations”
Ally Lantz, climate crisis film festival director

From pizza and chocolate to shampoo and toothpaste, palm oil is a dominant presence in much of western life. But what consumers don’t see when they look at the shiny packaging of their favourite products is the incredible damage that palm oil production causes to the environment, biodiversity and local communities.

All over the world, palm oil producers use the illegal slash and burn technique to destroy forests and peatlands, eliminating carbon sinks and creating toxic, polluted environments for those who live nearby. Communities are fighting back against this deadly practice, to save their homes keep their air clean and stop the relentless march of palm oil companies towards ecological destruction.

Palm oil plantations cover 14 million hectares of Indonesia — an area larger than England

dark secrets hidden behind supermarket shelves

By Jake Coleman

The terrible disconnect between the seemingly benign end product you put in your shopping trolley and the acutely violent methods of production is a way of obscuring the damage that capitalism causes. This damage is felt most heavily in Indonesia and Malaysia where 84% of global palm oil is produced. Both countries have governments that have facilitated the dangerous exponential growth of the palm oil industry whilst largely ignoring its impact on the population. Production of palm oil in Indonesia has, since 1964, recorded a phenomenal increase from 157,000 tonnes to 41.5 million tonnes in 2018. With this has come the decimation of large parts of Indonesia’s forest and the mass pollution which threatens the lives of millions of Indonesians.

SERUNI is an all women-led NGO with chapters across various regions of Indonesia. Their work has been imperative over the last 5 years - as they conduct social outreach missions to provide emergency response packages to rural communities that are hit hardest by the annual forest fires. SERUNI also runs education programs to ensure communities are equipped with the right knowledge on how to protect themselves from the haze.

Carter Kirilenko, Director of In Your Palm, sat down with Livia Octaviani, a SERUNI volunteer working in Pekanbaru City to talk about the situation in rural Indonesia and what SERUNI are doing to help.

SERUNI as a special and empowering space for women which Livia describes as a ‘place to gather for our own struggle and fight against exploitations and oppressions from the current administration in Indonesia.’ The organisation was formed to replace an ineffective women’s body, which had been largely made up of neutral or government friendly appointees, that failed to act on the problems facing Indonesian women.

Livia Octaviani has dedicated her life to protecting rural communities from the haze and fighting against the palm oil industry

And the problems are stark. Livia points out that 65% of the population are peasants and most of those people are women, meaning that they are often the ones dealing with the worst effects of government policy. SERUNI supports these women in a number of ways, from spreading knowledge on what is happening and what they can do to make a better life for themselves, to empowering communities and helping grow local economies through tourism; showing the government that monopolisation of land for palm oil isn’t the best economic option.

But this will take an ideological shift and a change in the Indonesian government’s policy direction. The current administration’s policies actively favour the big palm oil corporations and oppress small land holders. Livia explained that there have been laws put in place to prevent the burning of land but these laws are only really enforced on small holder, often indigenous, farmers who use selective burning in their farming techniques. And whilst these smallholder farmers are prosecuted, fined and put in jail for minor fire offences, such as using traditional techniques that have sustained low-emitting communities for centuries, the big companies who cause the fires and the haze from uncontrolled burning of forest land are rarely punished. SERUNI try to mitigate this injustice by educating farmers about new farming techniques which don’t involve burning.

SERUNI Volunteers work tirelessly to help educate rural communities and protect them from the worst effects of the haze

Livia detailed the history of Indonesia’s transformation into a palm oil giant by pinpointing the 1980s, when the government allowed big corporations to clear vast areas of forest and peatland to create space for crops, as the starting point. These big corporations wanted to plant monocultures so the best and most efficient way for them to clear space was to obliterate all life in the area by burning.

As the practice has continued, the haze from the fires has become a constant presence in the lives of Indonesians. “We face Covid19 whilst haze happens in our city. On good days we wear 1 mask, on bad days we wear double masks. it’s been like this for a long time,” Livia says. When the haze comes to rural areas there is panic buying of masks meaning the price of masks goes up as they have to breathe the air 24hrs a day. They eventually can’t afford the masks, further emphasising the lopsided way the fires affect poorer people.

Face masks have been a fixture of life in Indonesia since long before Covid-19

The haze is particularly dangerous to young and old people, causing severe respiratory illnesses which further disadvantage the rural population who are further away from hospitals and struggle to afford the costs of healthcare. In high haze seasons the rural schools are forced to close for months at a time, which in the pre-covid era where online teaching wasn’t ubiquitous, meant that children had to stay at home, causing them to fall further behind.

The most damaging hazes in recent Indonesian history were in 2015 and 2019, during which SERUNI were on the front lines delivering emergency supplies. Livia and others supplied the rural community with masks and oxygen cylinders in addition to providing smoke-free shelters for vulnerable members of rural communities. Their work fills the considerable gaps left by the government whose shelters, which were only built by the time of the 2019 haze, were concentrated around urban centres and too well ventilated allowing too much smoke in to be effective for the most vulnerable people.

Volunteers work tirelessly in dangerous conditions to stop the fires and protect rural communities

SERUNI continue to work addressing problems on the ground whilst advocating for the bigger structural reforms needed to regulate palm oil corporations and protect rural communities. Despite the difficulties of the task, Livia remains determined. “We are hoping that we can change the system and give a life to our future generations. The struggle always happens, there are always a lot of problems, we try to make some things change even if it’s only a bit. We’re still doing that because we believe in the future.”

Palm oil plantation expansion leaves vast swathes of destruction in its wake, as great clouds of smoke and tonnes of Carbon dioxide are released and blown towards nearby villages

connecting
the dots

which forests are at
most risk from fires

the realities of big palm oil

Palm oil is the most produced, manufactured, and consumed vegetable oil on the planet. It is found in approximately 50% of all packaged goods in supermarkets - including household favourites such as shampoo, soap, chocolate, bread and ice cream. Indonesia is responsible for over half of global palm oil production. However, the growth of the palm oil industry in Indonesia is widely recognised as one of the driving causes of deforestation, carbon emissions and biodiversity loss.

In order to grow palm oil, companies will drain and burn vast amounts of peatland, which hold two times more carbon than rainforests growing on mineral soil. During hotter periods the peat fires quickly spread underground, cooking the soil from below and releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In 2015 - 2018 alone, peatland fires in Indonesia covered 462,000 hectares — nearly double the area of Luxembourg — resulting in 402 megatonnes (Mt) of Co2, which is equivalent to half the annual emissions of Germany.

According to a recent report released by Greenpeace, the companies that contributed towards the largest area of land burned are not being punished for their actions, while many smallholder farmers who burn a significantly smaller proportion of land to grow crops for their livelihood have been imprisoned for up to 2 years. Between 2015 and 2019, 8 out of 10 companies that burned the most land have yet to receive any punishment from the government. This failure to hold companies accountable may continue with the onset of the recently drafted omnibus law in Indonesia which weakens environmental regulations in turn for attracting further investment into the agriculture and resource extraction industries. Unless the government takes immediate action to hold companies accountable for burning land, this haze crisis is expected to continue in coming ‘El Nino’ years with drier conditions.

The vast area of burnt peatland results in poor air quality levels that are hazardous for human health, therefore putting local communities at risk. In 2019, the Indonesian provinces of Kalimantan and Sumatra experienced air quality levels that reached 2,000 AQI, which, according to the EPA, is seven times higher than what is considered hazardous for human health. Many rural communities that live next to palm oil plantations are ill equipped to deal with the effects of the haze, resulting in many children and elderly people experiencing upper respiratory illness.

In 2016, a study published by Harvard University revealed 100,000 premature deaths in Southeast Asia due to the widespread haze crisis. Smoke-contaminated air is particularly dangerous for pre and post natal health. Toxins consumed by mothers often impact the nutrient and oxygen levels delivered to foetuses. Wildfires in Indonesia led to 15,600 premature child, infant and foetal deaths. Poorer families are disproportionately at risk. Not only does toxic haze and wildfires have physiological impacts on children but it delays education and access to healthcare, making addressing the haze an important infrastructure investment for Indonesia’s development as a country. The system cannot continue to allow children to miss school, fall behind in grades, limiting the potential for social mobility.

oily business

Palm oil should not be eliminated entirely as it gives the highest yield per acre of any oilseed crop. Oil is an essential product used in almost all of the things we consume and though we should reduce our oil consumption it is not something we can cut out entirely. The point here is not that palm oil is bad, merely that it is a highly used product that represents the systemic failures of our current methods of production to offer products without causing ecological destruction. There just needs to be much more stringent regulation/monitoring of the supply chains, policies where companies that are indirectly responsible for forest fires are heavily taxed by governments even if the company is not based in the country where the damage takes place.

A 2018 Greenpeace report found that 12 brands were guilty of sourcing from the 20 most destructive palm oil producers. These companies are: Colgate-Palmolive General Mills Hershey Kellogg’s Kraft Heinz L’Oreal Mars Mondelez Nestlé PepsiCo Reckitt Benckiser Unilever

Many of these companies are conglomerates made up of 10s and even hundreds of well known brands, most of which aren’t highlighted as contributors to environmental degredation. And whilst PepsiCo, Nestlé and L’Oreal may be very well known names that can be seen on supermarket shelves all over the world, Unilever, General Mills and Mondelez are not a part of the public consciousness in the same way. So in pointing the finger at these giant corporate monopolies it is important to mention the headline brands that they own. Unilever owns Persil, Marmite and Pot Noodle, General Mills owns Betty Crocker, Cheerios and Old El Paso and Mondelez owns Dairy Milk, Belvita and Oreo. In addition to bringing these lesser known corporate entities into the light, protests should focus on the individual brands, like Dairy Milk, to put pressure on them to make demands to the larger conglomerates like Unilever, Mondelez and General Mills to change their sourcing methods.

Although the Indonesian government have the most responsibility when it comes to holding palm oil companies to account, there are still measures governments of other countries could take. Levying carbon taxes on companies who bring high polluting products into a country could disincentivise those companies from continuing the industry’s destructive methods. Prohibiting companies from using certain palm oil producers unless the producers consent to an auditing process that determines their methods are sustainable.

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footnotes

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curation Ally Lantz
written Jake Coleman
art direction Susanna Basso
director Carter Kirilenko
country Canada
year 2020
run 23:55min