Palm Oil Wisdom from Pa

I was hangry, sweaty, and cramped in the back of a local bus in West Sumatra, exhausted from the morning’s jungle trek on little sleep. An older local man (which are all referred to as “pa” in Indonesia) started inching closer to me. “Hello! Where are you from?” He asked cheerily. I was expecting the usual exchange, which ends in asking me for a selfie (white people are a rare sight in West Sumatra, and it was explained to me that due to white-washed beauty ideals, many locals ask for selfies with white tourists to show their friends they have a white-person-acquaintance. This phenomenon is so nuanced it deserves a separate post.) Anyway, this was not the case with this Pa. He kept asking questions, wanting to ensure my time in Indonesia had been enjoyable, despite my short responses and moodiness. I was in full introvert mode and am ashamed of how curt I likely was responding, but that didn’t seem to faze him.

“And the people in Indonesia? How do you find them to be? Humble, helpful, friendly?” He asked hopefully. Yes on all counts, very friendly. One woman I never even met went out of her way to call every clinic in Jakarta for me until she found one that could administer a Polio vaccine to me on a Sunday. Humble, helpful, and friendly indeed!

“I’m curious, what was the visa process like for you to come here? How long did you have to wait? What paperwork did you have to prepare? Did you have to show how much money you have in your bank account? How did you get permission to come?” He asked.

“Um, it was easy. I didn’t have to prepare any paperwork, just had to buy a ticket really. The visa was available upon arrival,” I replied.

His eyes grew, despite his left eye being permanently closed, presumably from an accident. “To come to America, we have to give a lot of paperwork to apply for a visa, very expensive, and it usually gets declined. It’s very, very hard for us to get to America. Very easy for you to get here,” he points out.

“It’s unfair,” I offer bluntly. I want to offer more, anything to offset the inequality of passport colors and global politics, but come up short. He fills the void and offers a smile.

“Yes, unfair,” he nods. “What do you do in America?” He asks.

“I’m a social worker, I work with kids and parents fleeing violence,”I reply. His smile expands.

“Ah, bless, bless you, that’s good work. You know, my English is so good because I’m an irrigation engineer. I taught myself English to be able to read articles and information about my craft, to improve my work. We’re in a crisis, have you heard? A drought.”

I turn towards him, finally offering my full attention. I recoil at my initial judgment of him, how I sized up his attire and demeanor and priced out what he wanted from me. I was blindsided by the wisdom he was about to offer me. My Western-programmed brain only gave him merit when he gave me his employment credentials. I recoil at this truth too.

“Not just a drought, but fires too. Big companies come and burn our forests for palm oil. They lie to us and push us to sell our land to them, but locals don’t get a cent from the palm oil they get from our land. Have you heard? It was good the Amazon got so much attention when it burned, but our forests are burning too. Just from greed, these big companies and greed.”

I had heard rumblings about the fires, but thought it was from the climate change induced drought, not from companies coming in and burning them purposely. Chicken and the egg, really – climate change is being fueled by emissions from the mass fires. Later, I read that multi-millionaire dollar grossing companies are bulldozing entire indigenous villages, leaving hundreds of people and endangered species like orangutans homeless. Nearly half of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation, and acute air pollution has caused over 12,000 premature deaths. I learn Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil in the world, exporting 56% of the world’s supply. Palm oil is present in household staples like toothpaste, soap, dog food, cooking oil, make up, shampoo, chips, and even infant formula. Since 2001, Indonesia has lost 26 million hectares of forest in the name of the $44 billion palm oil industry. The biggest culprits are brands like Unilever (the manufacturer of Dove, Knorr, and Lipton products), Starbucks, Nestle, and Hersheys. Some brands have pledged to use 100% traceable palm oil, but Pa stresses that’s not enough.

“Some companies say they’ll stop burning the forests illegally, but they keep doing it, and who’s watching? Our government is so corrupt, they can easily pay them off. We [residents] just watch, but we can’t do much,” he laments.

He faces me head on, and his right eye lights up at me, America the Lost Hope.

“You’re a social worker, right? That means you care about things, about people, maybe about this. Maybe if Americans knew about the burning of our forests, they’d stop buying all the products with palm oil in them. And that’d make the companies go away, supply and demand, you know? Can you…can you tell everyone back home about the fires? Will you do that for me?”

You got it, Pa. So this is my plea, my vow and my feeble attempt at spreading awareness. Don’t doubt the power of your consumerism. Check labels, do research, and, as much as possible, buy products that are palm-oil free. Here’s a list of palm oil free products to get started.

Above all, I’m slowly learning to never lose sight of the connectedness of our world. How saving a few cents on a Nestle chocolate bar can fuel displacement, child labor, and deforestation on the other side of our burning planet. How learning can sprout from a stranger on a crowded bus, not just from a peer-reviewed journal. I always thought “The Butterfly Effect” (i.e., tiny changes in complex systems can cause huge effects, such as “the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can lead to a hurricane on the other side of the world”) was corny, but if I’m being honest, the interconnectedness of our world is the answer to most of life’s questions. Connection is the answer to most of life’s questions. Back home, I normally hide behind books, timesheets, followers, filters, profiles. But look up, show up. You are here.

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