Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Palm Oil - A Symbol of Pride or an Instrument of Greed?

Courtesy of Justin Mott, The New York Times
"A worker collects Palm Oil fruit in a Malaysian plantation".

Igbo people considered palm oil one of their finest commodities according to Chinua Achebe’s fictional work “Things Fall Apart”. “Things Fall Apart” was published for the first time in nineteen fifty eight and portrays the conflict between European colonialists and the indigenous people of Igboland just before the colonization was officially declared. According to Achebe’s narrative palm oil was commonly used by the Igbo villagers. In addition to serving as an important food ingredient it was used to pay respect to each other and also to reverence their gods during some religious ceremonies. The passage “proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten” really entices one to reflect on the importance of the cherished oil in the lives of Igbo people. In trying to understand the meaning of the metaphor I imagine that palm oil, utilized in this context to symbolize all foods, was as vital to them as the eloquence of words which should be used as an instrument of interaction among the Igbo communities.

It appears that outstanding agricultural harvesting and a sound verbal communication were two important factors which could lead one to reach success and ascend on the Igbo social ladder. Despite the fact that the yam was highly regarded as one of the most important cash crops for the Igbo farmers, palm oil always held a place of importance for that society as well. In fact, for the longest time, it has taken the lead as a symbol of prosperity not just for that particular region of West Africa but also for other countries which had favorable climates. Palm oil used to be transported in the slave merchant ships both as a valuable trade commodity and also as an essential part of the slave’s diet. Throughout the history of mankind, palm oil’s role has changed from simply being considered as an eatable ingredient or as an object used to show respect and friendship. It has become a highly regarded component used in industrialized foods and as a raw material for other industries such as cosmetics and bio fuel which millions of people around the world are becoming increasingly dependent.

Historically, societies are inclined to look for resources elsewhere if there are shortages at home or with the intent of increasing their economical power. Achebe highlights the effects of colonization of Nigeria by the British in the 1900’s through his literary work. When the imperialists first established themselves in Igboland many local communities did not accept what they considered an invasion of their sovereignty. Some communities fiercely resisted the colonial rulers under the leadership of a movement called Ekumeku. This movement was formed in 1898 to fight against the collapse of Igbo customs and traditions and against the imperialists who were causing such harm by advancing to the interior of Nigeria to explore their resources. The Anglican missionaries had an important role in paving the way for the British as they were the first ones who took the challenge to venture inland. Based on what they witnessed the imperialists took the necessary steps to consolidate the British domination of the land. Some of the main factors that prompted the British to colonize the country were marked by the end of the slave trade in the early 1800’s, the desire to expand its commerce of manufactured goods in Africa and other parts of the world and also to boost palm oil production which was already a highly attractive commodity at the time and especially needed to attend the requirements of industrial processes back home (Metz).

The exploration of palm oil was in fact a strong subject of interest of British imperialists who long had knowledge of tales from people who had sporadically visited the West Africa tropical region since the 1500’s. They decided to take action and push colonization of the land, which would eventually be called Nigeria, as the British saw the potential for West Africa to become one of the biggest oil suppliers of the newly established markets created by the British Industrial revolution. Despite their ambitious plans, the oil market did not show any significant improvement for quite some time as they had to overcome a number of adversities during the implementation of experimental plantation projects. One of the drawbacks was a low competitiveness of the West Africa product compared to the high quality oil which started being produced in Malaysia. British colonialists decided to provide logistics and training support to local farmers in order to boost the quality and make the product become more competitive internationally. Eventually, the imperialists started investing more resources and British-run plantations were established in Central Africa, and also in Southeast Asia, and slowly the investment started to pay off and show more significant results. Palm oil was considered a very important raw material used to make lubricants for machinery, candles, and for food components in Europe at the time (Berger).

West Africans had been familiar with oil palm for thousands of years as the plant was native to those regions closest to the tropics, especially in humid forest areas along river banks. Long before the British colonialists came to Igboland, many farmers were producing oil from palm but their methods were laborious and counterproductive and most of its production was either meant for internal consumption or exchanged with other necessary merchandise in neighboring villages. Only a small portion was exported outside the country through merchant slave ships. The European-run plantations established in Central Africa after the 1900’s eventually presented better quality oil compared to other local plantations which were not well structured. Another factor is that the workforce that headed the plantation projects was better trained and used better equipment. Palm oil plantation initiative was a prominent business and despite it having some up and downs in the beginning, eventually rendered significant gains for companies established in Africa. Despite that, symbols periodically change its meanings according to society needs. As societies are constantly changing their values and patterns of behavior, one would expect that certain symbols would eventually die out and become irrelevant. However, this has not been the case with palm oil which has been around for hundreds of years and represents today one of Nigeria’s main sources of economics. Palm oil can be used for a number of applications in different industries such as food, cosmetics and bio fuel. These factors alone may not have been the only reason that the European decided to colonize Nigeria but they are certainly some of the most important factors. (Berger)

Even though oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is native to West Africa it has spread to different areas such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Colombia where the environment was considered favorable. Palm oil has also been produced in Brazil obviously at a considerably lower scale compared to countries considered major players such as Indonesia and Malaysia which are known to produce about 90% of the world production. In Brazil palm oil was initially produced in the state of Bahia and most recently plantation projects have expanded to other areas such as the state of Para in the Amazon region (Fisher). However, Bahia has been known to cultivate palm oil since the times of colonization. It is a place where the African culture is remarkably alive due to three hundred years of slave trade activities during the colonization of Brazil by the Portuguese. Bahia is located in the northeastern region of Brazil, right on the Atlantic coast, and its population is predominantly black as it was a “second home” to millions of Africans who were traded as slaves and transported across the Atlantic Ocean.

 Most of these slaves came from the West Africa coast starting around the 1550’s which was right after Portugal established its colony in Brazil. It is estimated that more than three million slaves made their way into the country from the 1600’s to 1900’s (Wikipedia, Slavery in Brazil) Their final destination was to work in the sugar cane mills and coffee plantations and also in gold mining activities in the provinces of Bahia, Minas Gerais, Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro. The main port of entrance of these people from Africa was Porto Seguro in the Province of Bahia which was considered a strategic geographic point between West Africa and Brazil. From there they were relocated to farmers from other inland provinces. Obviously, the Portuguese carried Palm oil and other supplies such as the yam and taro as these items were considered essential to the African diet. Palm oil plantations are known to be introduced to Brazil in the early 1700’s (Brazil: A culinary journey, by Cherie Hamilton) as the slave trade was expanding and slave carriers criss-crossed the Atlantic from the east coast of Africa to either Brazil or America.

Interestingly, the influence of the African culture in Brazil was a lot stronger compared to that of the United States. In an attempt to gain a better perspective on how palm oil and other cultural elements became so unique in the lives of northern Brazilians and not so much in America, I continued reading a little more about the dynamics of the adaptation of the African element in both Brazil and the United States. Historians claim that the number of people traded as slaves in Brazil reached 38% of the total number of slaves acquired on the West coast of Africa while the number of people who came to the United States was close to 6%. The considerable higher amount of slaves transported to the northern region of Brazil may explain why the African culture is thriving there and more specifically in the state of Bahia. On the other hand, authorities in the US had much tighter control on the amount of slaves traded on American soil to work in the southern States plantations. The black population in the United States does not appear to have memories of the cultural identity of their ancestors. This is mainly because they were in significant smaller numbers compared to the contingent sent to Brazil.

Another factor is that in Brazil there were laws which prohibited family members to be separated while this did not exist in the US. Also, slaves were kept from expressing any aspect of their culture. The Portuguese also prohibited slaves to speak in their tongue and express their culture as they were primarily concerned with productivity. Apparently they were unable to control the slaves behavior at its fullest especially when they were gathered at the Senzalas (slave quarters) during off hours. The fact that the law allowed family members to remain together contributed enormously to the retention of their memories. Under such circumstances it was inevitable that many aspects of the West African culture such as; religion, art, music, dance and culinary had better chances to survive in Brazil, despite the fact that in the early years they could only express themselves hidden in the woods as it was considered illegal to have such manifestation publicly. Brazilians owe a lot to West Africans for contributing enormously to the formation of their cultural identity. Some of the most expressive elements which have strong African influence are, Carnival (samba), Capoeira (a mixture of fight camouflaged as dance from Angola), Camdomble (Religion from Yoruba African tribe), and the inevitable role of palm oil in a wide variety of foods which helped to preserve the memories of the African culture so remarkably well (
Muqueca Baiana - Courtesy of AnaToscano
 "A traditional Bahia's seafood stew made with plenty of palm oil and coconut milk".

When palm oil was first introduced in Brazil, as a result of the slave trade, there were no great expectations in terms of making it a highly profitable crop. The main purpose of it was to use it as a food commodity to those populations which arrived from Africa. Since then oil palm had been cultivated in Bahia but such activity has always maintained a low profile in terms of international market competitiveness. Today the production of palm oil has not reached impressive numbers in that country and it still imports half of the oil it utilizes for bio fuel purposes. For many decades soy bean has been the most representative oilseed crop produced in the country and its production has ranked second largest in the world market with the United States ranking first. Another focus of Brazilian economy is bio-fuels. The country started producing ethanol from sugar cane in result of laborious research done in the 70s as an alternative to fossil fuel.

Thanks to the Brazilian government, who had the vision of developing bio fuel technology at a time fossil fuel prices were relatively low, Brazil has become the leading force in renewable crop energy. Now both the private sector and the government are focusing more closely on the production of bio fuel from Palm oil as well. Many of the lessons learned from the challenges faced by cultures of soybean, sugar cane and the experience of the large palm oil producers from Indonesia and Malaysia have taught entrepreneurial groups that the best way to go is to be positioned according to increasingly consumer demand and be focused in producing according to environmentally sustainable guidelines (Payne). The baseline of a sustainable development approach of agriculture is to respect the environment and manage to address social issues accordingly.

In an era where the world has become exceedingly dependent on renewable energy there have been claims that cultivation of palm oil has caused great ecological impact, especially in Asian countries. For a long time the world has heard the outcry of environmentalists who claim that industrial scale grown oil palm is largely responsible for destruction of enormous areas of forests and such activities have cascaded into greater environmental and social problems. It appears that countries in Latin America such as Columbia and Brazil are doing their homework and exercising caution so that the mistakes made by Asian countries are not repeated in Latin America. Despite that, there is always room for abusive behavior on the part of producers who would use palm oil as an instrument of greed and not refrain from taking short cuts in order to make substantial investment returns. Despite the fact that Brazil has a history of deforestation in parts of the Amazon area, there are still millions of hectares untouched which must be preserved at any cost. Industrial cash crop plantations tend to be more closely controlled especially if there is an enormous financial risk and credibility is involved.

Since 2004 sustainable practices have been reinforced by an international organization called The Round Table on Sustainable Palm (RSPO). RSPO’s body was formed by a number of stakeholders with expertise in many different areas and although they may also be part of different industries, they all have one thing in common, which is the concern for social and environmental aspects in dealing with palm oil. In order for products to be commercialized abroad they need to be certified by RSPO as environmentally and socially sustainable (Osava). Even though it will take many years before Brazil makes headway into the international marketplace, both the government and interested groups have implemented very tight guidelines to ensure that growers follow the rules in order to avoid roadblocks as a result of environmental and social concerns of violations. Planters need to comply with such laws in order to meet high international standards as this will be the only way to make the product appealing to customers abroad. Many interested stakeholders are on the move and taking aggressive steps to make Brazil one of the major palm oil suppliers in the next few decades (Osava).

Even though consumers are more aware of the implications of how the environment responds to the way humans behave, there are certain things we cannot control. The world population has expanded a great deal over time and all of the decisions we have made in the course of history have significantly impacted the environment and therefore, our quality of life. Human activities have depleted a great deal of the natural resources in the course of time and the prospect of the future is not very positive. Societies have to rethink the condition of humans, reassess their interests and accept that they live on a vulnerable planet. With the growing demand of food the forest areas have slowly been replaced by cash crop plantations and livestock fields in order to attend the needs of highly populated urban areas. Palm oil, regarded as one of the greatest commodities of mankind highlights this situation quite well as more than 50% of all manufactured goods we consume on a daily basis is known to be made with it. In an era in which we recognize that the planet is suffering enormously from environmental imbalances it is important to treat it with respect and preserve its integrity so that future generations will have the ability to enjoy it the way we did.

Metz, Helen Chapin,”Figure1.Administrative Divisions of Nigeria as of August 1991” April 1992
Nigeria Introduction – Flags, Maps, Economy, Geography, Climate, Natural Resources, Current ISS

Berger, K. G., Martin, S. M. “II.E.3. - Palm Oil”
The Cambridge World History of Foods, published by Cambridge University Press

Nigeria Commodity trades
Igbo people – the Portuguese were the first to have contact with Igbo people

Osava, Maria, “Brazil to expand palm oil plantations on 32 million acres of degraded land”
Deforestation Watch, 2011

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Knopf, 1995.

SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Things Fall Apart.” SparkNotes LLC. 2002. Web. 17 May 2011

Countries and Their Cultures, “Igbo”


Historical Geography of Nigeria, “A Basic Chronology for Nigeria’s Historical Geography”

Nigeria, the Colonial Economic Legacy, Early British Colonialism
Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Nigeria: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of
Congress, 1991.

Fischer, Rosa Maria; Bose, Monica; Borba, Paulo da, “A quest for sustainable economic and social
Brazilian Agropalma Family Agriculture Project

The Afro-Brazil
Africans in Brazil: Some highlights

Wikipedia, “Slavery in Brazil”
“History of Carnival in Brazil”

Payne, Nathaniel
“Brazil Is Poised to Become the Global Leader in Sustainable Palm Oil Production”, Finance & Investment,, Nov 2010.

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