A man burns old palm fruit in Cameroon. Photo: Go Forth Films

6 February 2017 (Mongabay) –  Most of the attention around palm oil production has focused on where the crop has the largest footprint: Southeast Asia. Yet oil palm plantations are rapidly mushrooming throughout the tropics, from the species’ ancestral home in West and Central Africa to Pacific islands to Latin America. A new film, Appetite for Destruction: The Palm Oil Diaries, looks at some of the social and environmental impacts of that expansion, by visiting communities, forests, and plantations in Cameroon, Guatemala, and Colombia.

During a January 2017 interview, Mongabay caught up with the film’s director Michael Dorgan, who talked about his experience in making the film, including an experiment he conducted on himself in an effort to measure the effects of a palm oil-heavy diet on his health.

An interview with Michael Dorgan

[…] Mongabay.com: What led you to do a film on palm oil?

Michael Dorgan: I knew nothing about palm oil, until a chance conversation with my dad. That led me to do some research. I was shocked at the impact palm oil was having, particularly in Southeast Asia.

The two key factors that led to the documentary being made were:

One, palm oil is in so much of the food we eat, yet, because it’s just a hidden ingredient, the public awareness of it is remarkably low. I thought that needed to change.

And two, the majority of the news coverage had been of Southeast Asia and of orangutans dying there. However, palm oil production was growing massively in Africa and Latin America, with little scrutiny. I was intrigued to find out if the story was the same there, or, in fact, completely different.

Mongabay.com: You did quite a bit of filming on location. Did you encounter any major challenges capturing footage of oil palm plantations and forests? Did you have any opposition to your project?

Michael Dorgan: In short, yes. Guatemala was probably the scariest. Everyone we spoke to feared retribution from palm oil companies. On our first night in Guatemala we spoke to a human rights activist about the situation in the country. He gave us great, detailed information and so we asked if we could interview him on camera. He refused to do so, even anonymously. This set the tone.

We visited communities whose land was being forcibly sold to palm oil companies. Therefore, we were filming on the border between the communities and plantations. We’d be filming with a community and then be told that the local palm oil company knew that we were there. We’d have to make a hasty exit to avoid confrontation. This was for our safety, but also for the safety of the communities and the human rights workers.

After we left, we learnt that a human rights worker about an hour from where we’d visited was allegedly assassinated for opposing the contamination of local rivers by palm oil companies. […]

Mongabay.com: What was the most surprising thing you learned during the making of this film?

Michael Dorgan: The impunity with which some palm oil companies operate.

In Guatemala, the government and the palm oil companies are on the same side. This means human rights abuses, based on racial discrimination, are allowed to continue without consequence. Many times, when human rights organizations attempt to intervene, they are silenced, sometimes forcibly. Thousands of indigenous Mayan people are being forced into poverty by losing their land and little is being done to stop it.

In Cameroon, palm oil companies have no real obligation to follow environmental rules. This is mainly because the sanctions imposed by the government are so weak. In reality, companies can just build the cost of paying small environmental fines into their business model. Here, the consequence is large-scale deforestation. Without urgent action, animals will go extinct.

The problem in both Guatemala and Cameroon is that there are no incentives to change because most of the focus is on cleaning up Southeast Asia. [more]

Documenting the consequences of palm oil production beyond Southeast Asia

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