This article appeared on April 27, 2022 in Boston Review. The title is slightly misleading as the bulk of the article is actually about the long entanglements of war, empire and palm oil, with the ongoing Russian invasion as the jumping-off point.
In the global protests against Vladimir Putin’s “special operation,” the sunflower has become a potent emblem of solidarity with Ukraine, for which it is not only a national symbol but a key export. Native to the Americas, it was established in Eastern Europe by the turn of the nineteenth century, and ever since Ukraine and Russia have cultivated it and prized its oil. Together the two countries now produce at least 70 precent of the globe’s sunflower oil.
But the invasion has disrupted this export, sending the global price of all cooking oils skyrocketing. This has forced fast and processed food companies to scramble for alternatives. The resulting price hikes on these commodities threaten to put an essential foodstuff, cooking oil, out of reach for many of the world’s poor. And it has caused a dangerous resurgence of palm oil as a substitute, to the great dismay of environmental and human rights campaigners. This demand has so greatly increased the market value of palm oil that Indonesia, which exports 56 percent of the world’s supply, announced this week that it would halt all exports until it could secure its own country’s food supply. This move will certainly only further destabilize markets.
Over the past decades, environmental and human rights organizations have had some measure of success in drawing attention to the dire impacts of palm oil production, notably in Indonesia and Malaysia, which together export 85 percent of the world’s supply, as well as in Latin America, West Africa, and other tropical regions where oil palms are grown. Taking inspiration from earlier consumer-oriented campaigns to associate diamond mining with war and violence, several large global NGOs have used the term “conflict palm oil.” The term seeks to draw attention to the link between the expansion of palm oil plantations deep into tropical forests and the systematic abuse of workers and the environment. The expansion of oil palm farming is often accomplished through violent land-grabs that robs Indigenous people and peasants of their traditional territories. Palm barons are known to employ gangs and death squads to intimidate or murder journalists, trade unionists, and environmentalists.
In the last decade, a number of high-profile brands, including Iceland-brand frozen foods and Barilla (the world’s largest pasta maker), have bowed to pressure and removed palm oil from their products, turning to sunflower, soy, coconut, and other oils as substitutes. Others have pledged to purchase only from suppliers who abide by voluntary (and dubious) “sustainable” benchmarks. But with prices of alternative oils rising as markets rush to compensate for the disruption to Ukraine’s and Russia’s sunflower exports, those modest advances are in jeopardy. Palm oil remains a reliably cheap, readily available alternative. Environmental campaigners fear another wave of land-grabbing and forest-burning for palm oil production will follow, as happened in the wake of decisions in the United States (2007) and EU (2009) to increase the proportion of ethanol in gasoline, leading to a boom in the market for biofuels.
But the link between palm oil and war has a longer history, and that history has a lot to teach us about the capitalist economy of which we are a part.
Palm oil has been used for millennia in West Africa, where it remains not only a staple of the diet but also a substance freighted with cultural, spiritual, and economic significance. The term “palm oil” refers in fact to two separate products: the oil pressed from the fleshy orange seed bunches of the oil palm, and the distinct, harder-to-access oil locked in the kernels. While oil can be extracted from at least three different palm species, Elaeis guineensis, native to West Africa, is the most common cash crop. In its native region, the cultivation, harvest, and refining of its fruits have often constituted the bedrock of economic relations. As oil palm historian Jonathan Robins reports, it was critical to trade relations between the regions’ kingdoms and empires, including during the period of the transatlantic slave trade. But it was only after the British Empire banned the slave trade in 1807 that Liverpool’s merchants, denied their source of wealth, began to take an interest in the substance. Europe’s industrial revolution demanded lubricants for factory machines and the locomotives that brought their goods to market.
Soon, industrial chemists learned how to refine the pungent orange oil to manufacture, among other things, soap and candles. It also became vital to the miraculous new technology of preserving food in tin cans. Tinned food enabled the safe transportation of food throughout the empire, a necessity as troops were stationed in tropical zones where supplies easily spoiled and poisoning by locals was feared. All of this was make possible by the artificially cheapened labor of Africans, who cultivated, harvested, processed, and transported palm oil to the coasts, first under local taskmasters and later on European plantations in Africa.
These newly cheap commodities were sold to European consumers by companies like Lever, ancestor of today’s Unilever, still one of the world’s largest consumers of palm oil. They were promoted as the shared bounty of empire, benefiting rich and poor alike. Innovations in advertising driven by the soap, candle, and canned goods industries propounded a repertoire of racist imagery that still haunt us today, depicting Africans as desperate and thankful for European consumers’ largesse. European consumers were told that buying palm oil goods would gently, through the magic of the market, even help to defeat African slavery.
The reality, of course, is that, in the name of free trade, British and other European powers licensed themselves to invade Africa’s civilizations, slaughter military and civilian targets alike with machine guns, depose rulers, and impose exploitative trading relations that were anything but “free.” All this was undertaken in the name of securing the export of cheap palm oil and other commodities. Key to palm oil’s global trade, and to Europeans’ successful push inland into West Africa, was the advent of the steamship, its gears lubricated by palm oil too. For all these reasons and more, I have dubbed palm oil the grease of empire.
A short recounting of the 1897 British invasion and destruction of the Edo Kingdom in present-day Nigeria helps to illustrate how palm oil was central to the machinations of empire. In Edo, the British consul, in service to the empire’s merchant capitalists, orchestrated the conditions where his trade envoy would be attacked for ignoring the travel restrictions of Edo’s oba (king). This in turn justified the mobilization of a “punitive expedition,” complete with rockets and machine guns, a campaign that was celebrated in the English press as a humanitarian mission to save the Edo people from their oba’s (salaciously exaggerated) rituals of human sacrifice. The invasion resulted in the complete destruction of Edo’s magnificent capital city, admired by European visitors since the sixteenth century for its impressive architecture and organization. The oba was tried for crimes by a British tribunal and forced into exile. The upshot: the kingdom’s palm oil was secured for European import. Among the additional spoils of war were thousands of art objects collectively known as the Benin Bronzes. To this day, most are still incarcerated in European collections and museums, though there is a growing global movement to see them returned. That repatriation inspired the opening scene of Black Panther (2018), in which the villain, Killmonger, stages a daring raid on a museum that unmistakably resembles the Sainsbury Wing of the British Museum, where the largest collection of the bronzes is kept.
As the Industrial Revolution and the age of empire proceeded, palm oil found new uses. It was still too stigmatized by its association with Africa, and with industrial application, to be marketed as a source of cheap edible fat in Europe, despite the growing destitute urban proletariat and shortages of butter and lard. It was, however, a cheap and ready source of glycerin which, when combined with nitric acid, produced a volatile explosive substance that promised to revolutionize warfare. When, in 1867, Alfred Nobel discovered a way to fix nitroglycerin to clay in his lab near Hamburg, dynamite was born. Seventy-six years later, in 1943, the British Royal Air Force’s Operation Gomorrah would use the refined fruits of Nobel’s invention to almost completely raze Hamburg and kill 37,000 civilians in the span of a week, only one of many examples of the devastating impact of such explosives when combined with air power.
True: explosives also put a powerful weapon in the hands of working-class and anti-colonial rebels around the world, who could steal it from work sites and use it to target kings, conquerors, and capitalists in their carriages, homes, and clubs. But the myth of the deranged, bomb-hurling anarchist, like today’s myth of the terrorist, in fact helped distract attention from a far greater violence. Around the world, explosives were being used to blast open rockfaces and level terrain for railways and mining, leading nearly everywhere to new frontiers of resource extraction and labor exploitation, with catastrophic environmental and humanitarian consequences that haunt us to this day.
The “opening” of the American West, for example, and especially the transit of railways through the Rockies to resource-rich California, was accomplished with the help of dynamite, at the horrific expense of debt-bonded Asian workers who were often killed in the explosions or buried alive by the resulting rockslides. The toxic effluent from new mines in those territories was a significant contributor to the genocide waged against Indigenous nations.
Southeast Asia was another such location of rapacious empire-building and resource extraction. Whereas once European empires had been content to dominate coastal entrepots, new technologies including explosives, steamships, and railways allowed entrepreneurs to expand inland, including to establish plantations cut out from the lush tropical forests. With imperial troops (and hired gangs) nearby to put down revolts and a ready supply of displaced, migrant workers at their disposal, European capitalists made vast fortunes growing export-oriented crops, including oil palms. Soon the territories that would, after decolonization, become Indonesia and Malaysia displaced West Africa as the world’s leading exporters of palm oil, and so they remain.
The catalog of violence unleashed by plantation owners and colonial governments is chilling. This horror was abetted by the cunning with which they manipulated preexisting and fabricated ethnoreligious tensions to sabotage worker solidarity. Debt-bonded and enslaved laborers, many of them dispossessed by British imperialism in the Indian subcontinent, were made to try to survive deadly working conditions, pestilent accommodations, and brutal overseers. Plantation managers did not find it untoward to report mortality rates in excess of 10 percent a season due to accidents, disease, and violence. In Sumatra, at least a quarter of workers died as the result of their exploitation in the last decades of the nineteenth century. When workers rose up—and they indeed did—plantation owners were largely free to suppress them with lethal force, or to call on colonial forces to target not only the workers but their communities as well.
In the wake of World War II, the British and Dutch empires fought vicious wars against anti-colonial guerillas to hold on to their colonies at the behest of the large firms and European planter class (and their local agents) who ruled. It was in contexts such as these—and later in the U.S. neocolonial folly of the Vietnam War—that one of the deadliest legacies of palm oil was deployed, that murderous substance that bears its name: napalm. The substance was first developed during World War II in laboratories on Harvard’s quiet campus by merging incendiary explosives with palmitic acid initially derived from palm and other tropical oils (in later large-scale deployment, these natural derivatives were replaced with synthetic alternatives). Napalm proved to be a devastating weapon for empires to use in what they euphemized as “counterinsurgency.” Especially when dropped from planes and helicopters, it indiscriminately ravaged both civilians and forests, both of which sheltered and hid insurgents and, unlike machine guns and dynamite, napalm is difficult for anti-colonial fighters to appropriate and repurpose.
Ultimately, both Malaysia and Indonesia won their independence, but the plantation economy remained, sometimes with different owners. By the 1950s, these nations saw palm oil as an important source of economic development and, with the help of international organizations including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, aggressively pursued intensive development that led to millions of acres of forest being destroyed. This had catastrophic impacts on biodiversity and contributed to what the world would later come to recognize as anthropogenic climate change. While in some senses these schemes worked to enrich these countries, the wealth was unevenly distributed toward the top, with a powerful palm oil oligarchy emerging. It retains its power and influence to this day. Meanwhile, to ensure the sustainability of these inequalities, communist insurgencies in both countries were repressed in ways that unleashed horror upon horror on civilian populations. These wars laid the groundwork for the conditions in those regions that we see today, with violence, intimidation, and lawlessness defining the palm oil industry. The haunting documentary The Act of Killing (2012) vividly depicts the conditions of injustice, impunity, and exploitation caused by Indonesia’s sixties-era anti-communist purge: campaigns of wanton murder, sadistic torture, and systematic rape were commonplace, with perpetrators never brought to justice.
A similar story can be seen in Latin America, where palm oil has more recently been introduced in countries including Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil, and Colombia. Though each situation is unique, all share a recent history of U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes that targeted civilians with violence in order to defend local and foreign capitalists. For example, the United States worked extensively during the midcentury to support the regionally destabilizing business practices of the United Fruit Company, whose descendent company, Chiquita Brand Foods, remains a major player in the palm oil economy.
In present-day Colombia, incentives to transition the agricultural economy away from cocaine have encouraged landowners and land-grabbers to turn to palm oil, not because it is particularly lucrative but because it is a “flex crop,” with so many end markets that its price is relatively stable. Even though oil palms grow slowly relative to oil sources such as soy, it is easy for entrepreneurs to raze forest in the hinterlands, establishing new plantations far from the eyes of regulators and journalists. This is often accomplished by simply taking Indigenous or peasant lands. In the process, forests that have supplied communities with sustainable livelihoods are destroyed. Oil palms grow well on scorched land, and so fire has become the preferred method for clearing large tracts of forested land. This releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and has a catastrophic impact on the non-human species for which the forests are home.
These patterns are repeated around the world. Palm oil is a fundamentally and devastatingly violent industry and has been since its origins in European imperialism in Africa. This violence is not unique to palm oil, and arguably other export-oriented crops and even oil-producing industries are no different: the soybean industry is an environmental nightmare, for example. But what palm oil’s story reveals is that, beyond the episodic disruptions of supply chains by “hot” conflicts, like Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, there is a deeper current of violence. That violence is usually hidden from consumers behind the colorful packaging of the instant ramen and shampoo we buy at the supermarket.
Or not hidden at all: some of these commodities might even come to us proudly displaying a crest boasting that the palm oil from which they are made is “sustainable.” This labeling was an innovation of a global roundtable of palm oil exporters, corporate buyers, government officials, and representatives of NGOs that was established to respond to increasingly vociferous criticism of the industry in the early 2000s. It now purports to audit and enforce voluntary environmental and human rights codes for palm oil producers. But even the roughly 40 percent of the industry that subscribes to the scheme has shown lackluster results at best. Refining and exporting companies complain (with some honesty) that they can’t possibly track all suppliers, who often are connected through a byzantine network of subcontractors and sub-subcontractors. Much of the world’s palm oil is sourced from deep in the jungle, where forests are being razed, debt-bonded migrant workers are being exposed to toxic chemicals, and local officials might be easily bribed to look the other way. This is very far indeed from the urban offices where journalists, government representatives, and NGOs do their work. In January 2022, Malaysia’s Sime Darby Berhad, the world’s largest palm oil company by land size and a poster child of voluntary regulation, was determined by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (by no means a dovish humanitarian organization) to be guilty of using forced labor, making its assets subject to seizure.
The flip side to industry voluntary regulation is consumer activism. For large environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund, palm oil has proven a compelling cause for campaigns, especially when linked to the plight of charismatic species such as Borneo’s orangutans, whose habitat is profoundly threatened by palm oil plantations. Such campaigns, which put pressure on European and U.S. brands that use palm oil in their products, promise that if consumers “vote with our wallets,” we can stop the worst excesses of the industry. There has been some measure of success, but what Karl Marx called the heavy artillery of cheap prices has, in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, seen many of these gains reversed.
More profoundly, while such campaigns can draw attention to an issue and give environmental and human rights campaigners leverage, they target only the most visible forms of violence. These leave untroubled the profound violence of cheap prices themselves, which have their origins in imperialism and are possible only through the anonymous, dehumanizing machinations of a global capitalist market.
What such campaigns also neglect is the fact that the vast majority of palm oil consumers purchase it not out of ignorance but because of poverty. Palm oil has become the fat of the world’s poor—for example, in India, where cheap cooking oil feeds millions, displacing local artisanal oil-making customs and leading to widespread heart disease (palm oil is extremely high in dangerous saturated fat). Elsewhere, for instance for migrant workers in China’s industrial dormitories or for U.S. prisoners, and even on palm oil plantations themselves, cheap packaged foods—which, like instant ramen noodles, are mostly loaded with palm oil—are all that can be afforded.
Capitalism is at war with people and the planet. Palm oil is both a weapon in that war and an indicator of its severity. Palm oil could be an important and sustainable part of a diversified array of crops grown by small farmers in tropical regions, but that is far from the reality. Around the world, Indigenous, workers’, and peasants organizations are fighting for their rights and developing plans for alternatives. But these would require halting the industrial palm oil sector, something its beneficiaries will fight against, with politics and guns, and they have abundant resources to do so. To meet this challenge, those who live in palm oil importing countries will have to do more than avoid buying certain projects, assuming they can even afford to do so. We will all need to rededicate ourselves to creating a nonviolent economy. This will require localizing the production of many of the foods and products we depend upon, and building a just and sustainable network of global trade that does not sacrifice people on the altar of cheap prices.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its knock-on effects are a reminder that we are, more than ever, an interconnected global species, with profound and terrible powers to transform the world. Taking responsibility for our power will require much more than individual consumer action: it requires us to transcend the racist, destructive legacies of empire. Solving the palm oil curse is one part of this process.