A stretch of La Pasion River in Guatemala 100 kilometers long is the site of a major environmental disaster. Thousands of fish have died along the stretch. The immediate cause is the presence of melathion, a pesticide used in agriculture. The source, palm oil plantations and the Repsa company, a large oil palm processing company with a history of labor discontent and environmental problems.
Palm oil in Asia is associated with eradication of orangutan habitat, but even in countries, like Guatemala, where orangutans do not live, it is still associated with deforestation, land-grabbing, and labor abuses (problems that also exist but are sometimes overshadowed in rhetoric by the possibility of orangutan distinction.
There are a few exceptions (see for example fair brand Dr. Bronner’s sustainable palm project in Ghana), but in general, palm production is a problem of epic proportions.
The problem is so big it has led France’s ecology minister to call for a boycott of Nutella because it contains palm oil.
When the news broke that the FDA would finally address trans fats in the food system, environmentalists were quick to point out that an unintended effect may be to increase the use of unsustainable palm oil in our food, with devastating environmental effects.
What can be done? Many groups are calling on consumers to reduce their palm oil consumption. Palm is primarily found in processed foods and while there may not be a good direct substitute for palm oil as an ingredient, avoidance may lead consumers to choices that are healthier for themselves and the environment. Others are calling for brands to clean up their supply chains and for more sustainable palm options.
While working both of these fronts is important, it is also critical to hold companies like Repsa responsible for the damage they have already caused. If corporations are allowed to get away with causing this type of devastation, they will have no incentive to change their business model to one that is fair to workers, does not take away from the livelihoods of neighboring farmers and fishers, and protects our natural resources.
The organization on the ground working on to hold this corporation responsible as well as to find against tree monoculture systems in general is the Latin America Network Against Monoculture Tree Plantations (RECOMA). Learn more about what they do and how to get involved.