Violent palm oil land grab hits poorest
Hired thugs working for a palm oil corporation stormed villages in Indonesia to force people off their land earlier this month so that PT Asiatic Persada could take up a government concession. It was a dramatic example of an often violent international land grab at work.
Nearly 150 homes were destroyed in the latest incident in a long standing conflict, where the Indonesian government is sacrificing the lives of thousands of forest dwelling people to the god of growth. The army was present at the destruction of the Padang Salak hamlet in a dispersed village called Bunku in Sumatra.
On December 10 police opened fire on anti-palm oil protestors in Pujehun province, Sierra Leone. People were protesting about the activities of international agro-investor Socfin. They say they were lied to about leases and conned into allowing Socfin to move in for just $5 an acre.
After years of civil war, the Sierra Leone government has used a period of relative stability to invite the corporations in. It has signed a $1.3 billion deal with China Hainan Rubber Industry Group and Addax Bioenergy, a Swiss biofuel company, has leased 14,300 hectares in Tonkolili district for the production of sugar cane.
Another country emerging from years of civil war is Liberia, and the corporations are beating a path to the government's door. Equatorial Palm Oil has its eye on almost 170,000 hectares of land for plantations. The same story is repeated in Mozambique and Cameroon.
Local people are being bullied by their governments into leasing out land for tiny returns and for periods so long, they have in effect lost it for ever.
Claims that the corporations contribute jobs and welfare for people in areas where they work are a complete fraud. People are never consulted about roads or buildings, and few jobs are created.
And the claim that the corporations will help by paying tax to African governments is even more fraudulent. The charity Action Aid revealed a document from accountants Deloitte advising clients how to avoid paying tax in Africa. For example, by channelling funds through Mauritius they could avoid capital gains tax altogether in Mozambique, one of earth's poorest countries where life expectancy is just 49.
Fifty years ago palm oil was a minor product, but its property of staying solid at relatively high temperatures makes it useful for highly processed foods. It is present in half of all supermarket products though it may not be listed on the label other than as vegetable oil. The growing popularity of palm oil with the food processors has not reduced soya oil production; it continues to expand with an eye to the biofuels market.
The supermarket giants claim processing food into ready meals or snack products adds value. But in the UK more than 60% of adults are overweight or obese as are more than 30% of children. There is an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes and obese individuals have a 50% greater chance of dying early.
People in Africa, Indonesia and Latin America were never consulted about the vegetable oil giants moving on to their land. And people in the West were never consulted about the introduction of a diet driven by the profit margins of the supermarkets and endorsed by their friends in government.
The corporations are entities that float above society, not subject to any control, indifferent to the health and wellbeing of people or nature as a whole, and using their power to subvert any semblance of democracy. A united front of people's across the globe is needed to challenge both ends of this destructive food chain.
19 December 2013