Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire
Lecturer: Dr Max Haiven
16 Jun 2022
Palm oil is in an estimated 50% of supermarket products: the processed and prepackaged foods we eat, the soaps and detergents and cosmetics we use, the medicines we take and many more produces besides. It is so ubiquitous because it is cheap, but what makes it cheap?
As many environmental, labour and human rights non-governmental organizations have shown, the conditions under which the fruits of the oil palm are cultivated, refined and manufactured are horrific, leading to shocking deforestation and exploitation especially in Southeast Asia and Latin America.
But to truly understand, and to confront, the horrors of the palm oil industry we must look to its longer colonial history. In the wake of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, British traders found in this West African crop a lucrative commodity, one that would literally and figuratively grease the wheels of the industrial revolution.
Palm oil is also central to the history of commodity capitalism, the (racist) history of advertising and the development of imperial weapons. Equipped with this history, we can better imagine what it might take to meet the challenge of palm oil in our present day. Consumer activism is not enough. We must cultivate a new relationship to one another and to the earth.
- Chao, Sophie. 2022. In the Shadow of the Palms More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua. Durham NC and London: Duke University Press.
- Gill, Simryn, and Michael Taussig. 2017. Becoming Palm. Berlin: Sternberg.
- Li, Tania Murray, and Pujo Semedi. 2021. Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone. Durham NC and London: Duke University Press.
- Lustgarten, Abrahm. 2018. “Palm Oil Was Supposed to Help Save the Planet. Instead It Unleashed a Catastrophe.” The New York Times Magazine, November 20.
- Patel, Raj, and Jason W. Moore. 2018. The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Pye, Oliver. 2017. “A Plantation Precariat: Fragmentation and Organizing Potential in the Palm Oil Global Production Network.” Development and Change 48 (5): 942–64. .
- Pye, Oliver. 2019. “Commodifying Sustainability: Development, Nature and Politics in the Palm Oil Industry.” World Development 121: 218–28.
- Pye, Oliver, Fitri Arianti, Rizal Assalam, Michaela Haug, and Janina Puder. 2021. “Just Transition in the Palm Oil Industry.” Transnational Palm Oil Labour Solidarity network. September 21.
- Robins, Jonathan E. 2021. Oil Palm: A Global History. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC.
- Schneider, Victoria. 2020. “How the Legacy of Colonialism Built a Palm Oil Empire.” Mongabay, June 26.
- “The Great Palm Oil Scandal: Labour Abuses behind Big Brand Names.” London: Amnesty International.
- Tsing, Anna. 2009. “Supply Chains and the Human Condition.” Rethinking Marxism 21 (2): 148–76.
- Zuckerman, Jocelyn C. 2021. Planet Palm How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World. London: Hurst.
- Frontera Invisible, Dirs. Nico Muzi & Nicolás Richat (28m)
- “Poverty, and Palm Oil are Driving Deforestation in Indonesia”, Vice (14m)
- Appetite for Destruction: The Palm Oil Diaries, dir. Michael Dorgan (60min)
- “From rainforest to your cupboard: the real story of palm oil – interactive” The Guardian 10 Nov 2014.
- “Palm Oil: Destroying forests but in our everyday products” Jakeb Lovejoy, Esri Australia.
Questions for Discussion
- How does the history of racist advertising for palm oil products in the 19th century force us to revisit the potential of “consumer activism”?
- Review the “Just Transition in the Palm Oil Industry.” For this plan to be implemented, what kinds of changes would it mean for and require of palm oil consumers in the “global north?”
- Review Greenpeace’s Rangtan campaign. What does the campaign do well? What are the dangers or unforeseen consequences of the campaign?