The nutrient and calorie density of the red palm fruit makes it a true wonder of Nature.
Of the innumerable contributions of Nature to people, the oil palm stands out for it’s power. This power is exemplified by the cultural and religious importance given to this tree (and more specifically its fruit and seed), in it’s native West Africa.
In Brazil, where many West Africans were taken as slaves who brought their religion and the red oil palm with them, dende (the name for the oil pressed from the fruit of the African palm) is synonymous with power, flavor and spiritual presence. The fact that it was likely the single most important calorie source for hard working slaves contributed to it’s importance in northeastern Brazil to eventually rival and even surpass the central place this product holds in West African cultural practice.
Today, different versions of African palm oil are omnipresent ingredients in industrialized food, largely because it is one of a handful of highly saturated fats that is solid at room temperature, and of those by far the easiest to obtain in large quantities. In addition, its use for the production of biodiesel has been growing exponentially in recent years. Its just that good a source of energy.
The industrial monocroping of African palm in tropical landscapes is currently one of the major culprits for rainforest deforestation and loss of biodiversity. The virtual extinction of Malasian and Indonesian populations of orangutans and tigers are probably the most publicized impacts, but the entirety of losses far greater and very likely irreversible.
The problem is so bad and has received enough attention to prompt the creation of intergovernmental organizations like The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and The Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries. These organizations espouse the goal of promoting the economic well-being of palm oil producing countries while seeking sustainable solutions, but have fallen well short of addressing the devastation. The Roundable has been criticized widely for a lack of commitment to sustainability and everything from child labor to corruption.
The oil palm is just too tempting, too rich, too powerful to not concentrate, refine and commercialize to scale. Industrialized palm oil use stands in stark contrast to its West African and Afro Brazilian origins, and in many ways is the poster child for how current capitalist productivity fails to account for the tangible and intangible wealth of nature – and its linkages to human culture.
In the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, dende was produced and consumed following centuries-old cultural practices. The power of dende was acknowledged and respected, but it was produced and used alongside all the other needs of the population, with an eye to sustainability. In a traditional Bahian farm, and perhaps even more so in a traditional West African village, the oil palm was but a single piece of an interlocking mosaic of relationships that brought health, wealth and happiness to the ecosystems and communities that co-created them.
More than a metaphor, the story of the African palm showcases the folly of considering the pursuit of immediate economic gain at a large scale without accounting for the real loss of wealth that the destruction of the forest habitat represents. The world is in fact subsidizing the quick fortunes of palm oil kingpins, not only with the sacrifice of the Sumatran tigers and orangutans, but with harsh impacts on our planetary health and quality of life as humans on Earth.