Palm oil is nothing if not controversial. The commodity is a source of pride in Southeast Asia, where it has created jobs and contributed enormously to national economies. It is touted as a sustainable and versatile oil, and the palm from which it comes is heralded for its efficient use of land compared to other lower-yielding crops.
Yet the palm oil industry has brought with it a swathe of well-documented issues, most notably the clearance of peat forests to make way for plantations. In the media, the impacts on the many hunter-gather peoples who rely on the forests of Southeast Asia – such as the Jahai of Malaysia, the Agta of the Philippines, the Maniq of Thailand, and the Orang Rimba of Sumatra – have not received the same degree of attention as the cuddly creatures whose habitats are being lost.
Around the world, many people are reassured that palm oil is a good thing by global certification schemes like those run by the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). The UK’s beloved David Attenborough even urged consumers to buy sustainably certified oils in the recent BBC series Seven Worlds One Planet. However, the very idea of sustainability is political. Who is it sustainable for, and for what purposes?
The certification auditors may be overlooking hunter-gatherer peoples, whose concerns are not registered due to their lack of identity papers and often nomadic way of life. Failure to consult is a common problem for indigenous peoples being confronted with oil palm developments: in Sumatra, a plantation company was granted access to land from the state, bypassing the Orang Rimba themselves. Sustainability certification schemes may therefore end up promoting performative corporate social responsibility over and above actual sustainability for indigenous peoples.
In addition, for hunter-gatherers already employed on or living near plantations, or whose land has already been illegally grabbed for plantations, it makes little difference if a plantation adheres to RSPO criteria or not. This can amount to greenwashing. Oil marked “sustainable” for a consumer in the UK may mask how unsustainable it is for hunting and gathering peoples.
The colonial roots of the oil palm
The modern impacts of palm oil plantations on hunter-gatherers have their roots in colonialism. Though the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is native to West Africa, it was imported to Southeast Asia for the purposes of profiteering by the British, French and Dutch, where its proliferation relied on a system of land grabbing.
In order to maximise their profits, these colonialists often relied on indentured labour and the exploitation of indigenous and migrant workers, tendencies that continue to this day. This worker-plantation model was pioneered by the Briton William Lever in the early 20th century. Lord Leverhulme, as he was also known, developed the palm oil industry in what was then the Belgian Congo to supply raw materials for his soap factories in Liverpool. In so doing he caused the untimely deaths and dispossession of many thousands of Congolese people. Lever’s company, Lever Brothers (now Unilever), is today largely supplied by plantations in Southeast Asia.
The hunter-gatherers who dwell in Southeast Asia are particularly vulnerable to the problems those plantations bring. While some may welcome the economic opportunity, others may experience devastating environmental and social issues. Penan groups in Sarawak, for example, can no longer find food or clean water once forests are replaced by oil palm. It is important to take their varied perspectives into account in debates around palm oil in order to avoid repeating past colonial harms.
Traditionally, the term “hunter-gatherer” refers to a person who, instead of farming, hunts for animals and gathers wild plants, and who has a mobile living location within a given area. But this is not a neat definition. Today, many groups of hunter-gatherers supplement these activities with participation in the cash economy, perhaps by day-labouring on plantations, taking part in casual agriculture or horticulture, working with tourists as guides or porters, or selling forest products and crafts. This is often made necessary due to environmental degradation, including the destruction of tropical forests caused by oil palm plantations. In degraded landscapes, the flora and fauna that would provide a filling and varied diet are harder to find.
However, flexibility in subsistence is not unique to situations where widespread deforestation has occurred. Particularly in Southeast Asia, many hunter-gatherer groups have complemented their hunting and gathering with other activities for centuries. All have their own unique practices, and may be differently affected by encroaching plantations. Yet there are some broad similarities to take note of: owing to a generally higher level of mobility and strong reliance on particular ecosystems, hunter-gatherers may feel certain of palm oil’s impacts acutely. As we will see this begs the question, how far has the palm oil industry come since its introduction to the region in the 19th century?
Uncertainty over land rights
When it comes to smallholder farmers, the effects of oil palm estates are quite well understood. Smallholders may be pressured to set up as palm oil producers, yet find this difficult due to the costs of fertilizers and large up-front capital outlay. Those smallholders who are absorbed into large-scale palm oil operations often face particular issues: development planning practices favour centralised plantations that benefit the already-privileged few, and smallholders are thus likely to become landless wage-labourers on plantations. In Indonesia, this has caused intergenerational displacement and stagnant prosperity.
But because they often live nomadically, hunter-gatherers have less visible claims on the land than smallholder farmers. Often it is even more difficult for them to make land claims that are recognised by authorities.
Hunting and gathering peoples often have an extremely deep connection to the lands they dwell on, which for them are filled with memory and significance as well as opportunities for practical use, even if these lands do not have the more obvious markers of “land use”, such as brick-built houses. Though hunter-gatherers do make more permanent markings on the landscape, their markers might also take the form of evocative and personal place names, detailed understanding of animal trails, well-trodden pathways, and memories of which insects and birds call when and where.
Despite this attachment to their ancestral lands, hunter-gatherers often have no land rights. Legal certainty over land rights in Southeast Asia has failed to catch up with the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For example, Agta hunter-gatherers have been displaced in the Philippines to make way for infrastructure projects and extractive industries. In Indonesia and Malaysia, when rights are recognised, these rarely include full foraging and hunting areas.
These land issues are often rooted in policies developed during the colonial occupation of the region. After the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), the newly independent Malaysia inherited laws regarding customary land rights of indigenous peoples from the colonial administration – which had been shaped both by British protectionist paternalism and policies against post-war communist revolutionaries. Often these limited the rights of indigenous peoples in the interests of security. In Sarawak, the British saw the indigenous uses of land as “wasteful”. Today, as a result of their continuing lack of land rights, when oil palms encroach into their territories, hunter-gatherer groups may be at particular risk of displacement and loss of access to the forest that provides their home, safety and sustenance.
Personal danger and environmental degradation
Employment practices are a further issue that may affect hunter-gatherers who become embroiled in palm oil. Among various smallholder, migrant and indigenous communities, poor employment practices on oil palm estates have opened up conditions for trafficking, dependence and debt-bondage. A 39-year-old Bangladeshi migrant worker recently died when he fell into a waste boiler in a palm oil mill. Amnesty has reported that workers in Indonesia frequently lack the right protective equipment when handling dangerous chemicals. A lack of national IDs and political marginalisation may put hunter-gatherers especially at risk from these dangers. It is easier for large companies to employ them under the radar, and hence for their pay, contracts and conditions not to be subject to the same scrutiny by auditors. Even if they choose not to labour on plantations, but to remain in the forest or on its edges, they could be confronted with new roads and new exposure, and consequent opportunities for harassment and abuse.
Then, there are the environmental concerns associated with oil palm expansion in Southeast Asia – such as soil degradation, water pollution from fertilizers, and forest fires – to which hunter-gatherers can be particularly vulnerable. These are the issues that get most airtime in Europe, where anti-palm oil campaigns often feature threatened orangutans. France’s controversial “Nutella tax”, for example, provoked outrage from palm oil producing nations. In response, Southeast Asian nations continue to emphasise the health and environmental benefits of “sustainable” palm oil.
The deforestation and associated environmental issues brought about by oil palm cultivation can make it more difficult for hunter-gatherers to find a supply of forest foods and clean water as they settle on the edges of plantations. Thus these groups sometimes end up surviving solely on cheap non-perishable items bought from shops. Research in the Philippines has shown that hunter-gatherers’ health worsens when they are pressured into these kinds of settled locations. In parts of Malaysia, palm oil has contributed to the large-scale loss of ancestral forests, forcing hunter-gatherers to reside in poorly built government resettlement schemes, where there is little opportunity for employment. They are less able to hunt and gather in what remains of their forest, and more vulnerable to the polluting effects of manganese mining and pesticide run-off from plantations. These issues were brought to light by a case involving multiple deaths among the Batek in Kuala Koh in 2019.
Companies such as Unilever, and their suppliers in Southeast Asia, emphasise their commitments to avoiding human rights abuses, ensuring fair labour practices, ensuring free, prior, and informed consent of those affected, and avoiding environmental harms and deforestation. But as the palm oil industry continues to grow and become increasingly central to the economies of Southeast Asian nations (and perhaps also to the lives of hunter-gatherers themselves), it becomes ever more important that the palm oil industry, and the voluntary certification schemes that regulate parts of it, adhere to these stated goals. This would avoid reproducing the damaging human and ecological regimes of the plantation estates imposed during colonial occupation. Paying attention to the nuanced and complex rights and wishes of hunting and gathering peoples across Southeast Asia is one important way that this could, and should, be achieved.