As one of the fastest growing global commodities, palm oil has recently earned a reputation as a major contributor to tropical deforestation and, therefore, to climate change as well.
About 50 million metric tons of palm oil is produced per year – more than double the amount produced a decade ago – and this growth appears likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Because oil palm trees, native to West Africa, require the same conditions as tropical rainforests, nearly every drop of palm oil that hits the global market comes at the expense of natural forests that have been, or will be, burned, bulldozed and replaced with plantations.
With deforestation garnering headlines due to forests’ crucial role in regulating the climate, global commodity producers, from Nestle and Unilever in Europe, to Cargill in the United States to Wilmar International in Indonesia, are recognizing the need to provide products that are “deforestation-free.” Other corporate-led initiatives like the public-private Tropical Forest Alliance that promises to reduce the deforestation associated with palm oil, soy, beef, paper and pulp, and the recent New York Declaration on Forests signed at the UN Climate Summit in New York, suggest that saving the world’s forests is now squarely on the corporate sustainability agenda.
But what is being left behind is the other significant impact of palm oil and other agro-industrial commodities – namely human rights. Commitments to protect forests and conservation areas can, if well implemented, address environmental concerns by delimiting the areas of land available for conversion to palm oil. But natural resource exploitation is inextricably linked to human exploitation, and such commitments do little to address this.
A case in point is Grupo Dinant, a Honduran palm oil company that declared last month that it has been awarded international environmental certifications for its achievements in environmental management and occupational health and safety. Dinant has also been making overtures toward joining the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), including hosting the RSPO’s 4th Latin American conference in Honduras in 2013. But, Dinant, which produces about 60 percent of the palm oil in Honduras, is at the center of what has been called “the most serious situation in terms of violence against peasants in Central America in the last 15 years.”