SAN FRANCISCO–Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and Indonesian advocacy group, Sawit Watch, find continued evidence of abusive recruitment and labor practices and child labor on palm oil plantations in Indonesia. The groups’ findings center on one of the world’s most significant palm oil producers, Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK), which is a major supplier to U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill. This comes amidst a growing trend of investigations documenting controversial labor practices throughout Indonesia’s palm oil plantation industry.
Reports from around the globe paint a distressing portrait of palm-oil expansion, with land disputes, violent conflicts, and even murders carried out on behalf of palm-oil barons. “It’s a modern-day gold rush,” says Laurel Sutherlin of the Rainforest Action Network, a nonprofit with one of the most active and visible campaigns against palm oil. “Especially in the last decade, there has been a meteoric rise in global demand for palm oil.
Deforestation is at the top of the CIA’s list of environmental issues facing Indonesia, and much of it can be attributed to the creation of palm oil plantations, built to satisfy demands of the American market, which has increased the import of palm oil by 485 percent over the last decade.
The company, like many others in the sector, is aggressively expanding to take advantage of rising demand – and Yeow says that is good for people and the economy. “We kill the competition,” he says.
But the industry also has a reputation for killing natural forests and, in the process, the animals that depend on them. As non-profit groups like Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network (RAN) have raised awareness about the impact the industry is having on the environment, company executives say they are feeling the pressure to adopt better business practices.
Afterward we had coffee on the veranda of the great house that overlooked the sprawling, 8,000-hectacre property, the size of a small national park. Chok stressed the importance of corporate social responsibility like a mantra and said his company spends nearly $1 million every year to take care of migrant children. In the "competition" to retain experienced workers, Chok added that doing the right thing also made good business sense. (Singapore-based Wilmar has its critics, however.
Chok added that the extra investment went beyond the company’s bottom line, insisting it was the right thing to do. “The children are really lucky – the company is looking after them in every way. Other companies,” he went on, “look like they’re serious (about helping them), but they’re not.” (Wilmar is not without its critics. The Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based environmental group, alleges the company’s security forces have used violence and heavy machinery against villagers in Indonesia’s Sumatra province – among other heavy-handed policies.
In a recent announcement, Rainforest Action Network and Orangutan Outreach have set up an online petition urging Oz to retract his support of red palm oil. According to RAN and Orangutan Outreach, the cultivation of red palm oil is destroying jungles in Borneo and Sumatra. According to the two groups, 90 percent of palm oil originates in Indonesia and Malaysia. The increased demand for this product has led to massive forest clearings, putting ecosystems and wildlife in danger.