The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

Showering in palm oil

Coffee flecked bath soap first ingredient is palm oil.When we in Adams County take a shower, when we slather margarine on a piece of toast, or spray non-fat grease on a frying pan, we may be adding another family to the next caravan of Central American refugees heading north.

In snacks and some fast foods, palm oil often is, used in
their preparation, as ingredients or deep “fat” frying, or both. It’s used to
make margarine, non-dairy creamers and ice cream, and in products where animal
fats are unacceptable by dietary restrictions..

I went to market to purchase a couple bars of my favorite
soap, and for some craziness took a look at the ingredients.

Palm oil.

Recently, the biofuels market has provided a significant new
non-food use for palm oil, where it is used as the feedstock for the production
of biodiesel and as an alternative to mineral oils for use in power stations.

Many a snake oil salesman would have loved the stuff. Use it
to light your bedroom, grease the wagon wheels, and keep your ice cream from
melting. Really! The difference between palm oil and snake oil, however, is
palm oil works.

Meanwhile, we are told of a crisis on our southern border,
with hordes of Central Americans invading our nation. Although there is
considerable discussion about whether the crisis exists, it turns out at least
some of those arriving at our gate are seeking asylum from the violence plagued
home, and it turns out we might be partly to blame.

In the past decade or so, palm oil producers reportedly have
been taking over Guatemala. Palm oil plantations have pushed small farmers off
their land. Rivers that once flowed to the ocean have been diverted to irrigate
the new crop to help feed a worldwide demand. Corporate security forces have
killed protestors attempting to restore river flows.

It is like movies those of us of a certain age watched as
kids, in which cattle barons murderously usurped thousands of acres of western
lands from native Americans, sheep herders and dirt farmers, enforcing new deeds
written by Winchester.

The story is late coming to our hemisphere.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told an
interviewer on “Amanpour and Company” last week our southern border problem is people
“fleeing for their lives.” We should invest in reinstituting the rule of law
and building Central American economies, “and then people will be happy to stay
in their homes.”

But it is difficult to stay in one’s home when it has been erased
by multinational companies chasing profits from customers tens of thousands of
miles away.

Melody Kemp, a colleague who lives in Asia, has been
reporting on development and environment in the region, and has watched the
palm oil industry grow the past 10 years. She said Indonesia and Malaysia now grow
85 percent of the world’s palm oil and the effects have been devastating.

“I once drove across peninsular Malaysia marveling at the
forests and meeting the orang asli (indigenous
peoples),” she told me this week. “Seven years later the forest and the people
were gone.”

She told of watching in Indonesia, an island nation north of
Australia, as uniformed guards wearing the insignia of private security firms
on one sleeve and district police on the other, protected company thugs clearing
villages to make way for coming palm oil plantations.

Her story is being echoed now in Guatemala, while we brush
our teeth and shower with palm oil, more valuable than the homes of the people
evicted to make room for its production.

And having lost their home, at least some of them are
headed here to build anew.


  1. John as a postscript, when I tracked back along the supply chains I found Cargill sitting smugly at the top in most cases.. Companies like Wilmar who cop the public blame in Asia are the fall guys for Cargill, arguably one of the Global Food Godzillas. It’s that company that should be called out in the US.

  2. Interesting. The name is on several companies here in south central Pennsylvania. I’m not sure where to go with that, exactly, but it’ll come to me. The idea, of course, is to make readers aware of what it being done in the cause of providing consumer goods on which they have made us reliant.


    It’s a useful link. I’ve started buying bar soap and bar shampoo, but without palm oil products. Many “essential oils” listed on soaps are derived from palm oil, so it’s harder to avoid than you might think.


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