Migrant children working Malaysia’s oil palm plantations

Oil palm: worker and fresh fruits

Photo by DrLianPinKoh via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Awhile back, I posted about the (thus-far unsuccessful) efforts of two Girl Scouts to get palm oil removed from Scouts’ cookies, since worldwide demand for palm oil is leading to deforestation and resulting habit loss for endangered animals like orangutans.

Palm oil continues to become a major commodity crop, with complex implications for localities where it is raised. Yesterday the PBS NewsHour ran an informative piece examining the issue from special correspondent Steve Sapienza, as part of a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. As Sapienza describes,

In Malaysia’s Sabah province, migrant workers hustle to keep up with the rising global demand for palm oil. Made from the fruit of oil palm tree, it is now found in more than half of all the products sold in U.S. supermarkets, from cookies to cosmetics.

This labor-intensive work has changed little since the 1960s, when the government first pushed the expansion of palm oil production. Today, palm oil is Malaysia’s top crop, netting $25 billion dollars a year, and driving the spread of palm oil plantations into the wilderness….

One big reason the oil is so cheap to produce is the steady supply of migrant labor. The palm oil sector relies on some 500,000 foreign workers to feed global demand for the product and fuel Malaysia’s economic prosperity….

More of the world’s working children are employed in agriculture than in any other sector, according to the International Labor Organization. In Sabah, surveys show that more than half of the children without schooling end up working as child laborers.

For more details, including one bright spot — a collaboration between a plantation and an NGO to provide schooling for farm workers’ children — head here for the streaming video, along with an MP3 audio version and full transcript of the story.

Another report yesterday from the Sapienza’s fellow Pulitzer Center grantee describes how pesticide use in Malaysia’s palm oil production is resulting in the deaths of pygmy elephants. As Jason Motlagh reports for The Christian Science Monitor‘s Global News Blog,

A rare breed of elephant appears to be the latest casualty of the palm oil boom that is sweeping Malaysian Borneo, reigniting an already heated debate over the pros and cons of the world’s cheapest cooking oil.

Malaysian wildlife officials say 14 dead pygmy elephants were found last month in the wilds of Sabah Province, apparently poisoned by chemicals used by farmers to keep pests from eating the palm fruit grown on plantations that blanket vast swaths of the countryside.

As if that weren’t troubling enough, Morlagh notes that

A joint study published in October by Stanford and Yale universities revealed that land-clearing operations for plantations in Borneo have emitted more than 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 alone, equal to annual emissions from about 28 million vehicles. Over the past two decades, about 6,200 sq. mi. of primary and logged forested land have been destroyed in Borneo.

Next time you’re in the grocery store, check an ingredient list or two; you might be surprised where you find palm oil.


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