Words & Photos as Gerry travels through the world of wild apes

Palm Oil – Beauty Before the Beast

Village woman makes palm oil traditionally for personal family use behind her house in Fabe, western Cameroon. The oil palm fruit she processes is gathered every few weeks from palms growing on her mixed farm. Photo©Gerry Ellis/Minden Pictures

Palm oil has become the most maligned vegetable oil on the planet. Considering the ravaging deforestation, that has destroyed millions of hectares of biodiverse tropical rainforest, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, pushing species like the orangutan to the precipice of extinction, industrial oil palm production has earned that reputation. Long before palm oil became the most consumed vegetable oil on the planet (est 3.7 billion people per day) humans used oil palm fruit to make palm oil for millennia. In the late 1800s, archaeologists discovered a substance that they concluded was originally palm oil dating back to 3,000 BCE.

Not all palm oil production destroys vast natural tropical rainforests, critically endangering orangutans, and causing cultural conflict. Today small share farmers and individuals still cultivate, harvest and process oil palm into palm oil traditionally. On multiple trips in western Cameroon I visited villages and small farms where Cameroonians were growing oil palms and making palm oil in personal-use and small batches to sell. I was fascinated to see this community use of oil palm as everything I had witnessed to that point was industrial scale, primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia where plantations stretched for kilometers in every direction. To see the other side of palm oil I traveled to the small village of Fabe (western Cameroon) and spent several days documenting-—and learning about—a palm oil world I did not know (see the video slideshow below).

I also woke one morning in the village to hear soft singing behind my hut. When I wandered out I found my host’s stepmother elbow deep in a rich mustard-colored broth. Churning and mashing the mixture with her hands, the oily liquid was separating from a fibrous mat littered with what appeared to be miniature coconuts. The mixture was oil palm fruit on its journey to becoming palm oil for cooking. And the tiny nuts were the valuable kernel, who’s creamy white meat is used in soaps and, as I later was told, to coat toddlers, protecting them from mosquitos and other biting insects.

Palm oil, from the native palm tree Elaeis guineensiss, has long been recognized in Congo Basin and West African countries as a primary resource. The oil is widely used and didn’t go unnoticed by visiting Europeans. Merchants trading along the West African coast purchased hand-processed palm oil for use as cooking oil on their ships and to carry back to Europe. Britain’s Industrial Revolution changed the game and palm oil became a highly sought-after commodity to meet the growing demand for a cheap industrial lubricant. Palm oil applications grew and formed the basis of commercial soap products, such as Lever Brothers’ (now Unilever, a major industrial consumer of palm oil) “Sunlight” soap, and the American Palmolive brand.

palm oil in palmolive-ad-1919

Palm oil migrated out of the African rainforest and began commercially working its way into the western world in the mid-1800’s. By the early 20th Century commercial production grew in Africa and made its first move to the tropics of SE Asia. Image: Palmolive soap advertisement 1919.

There are no definitive numbers on how many people use palm oil processed in non-industrial small farms and in personal production, but the number across wet Equatorial Africa is likely in the millions. As industrial oil palm plantations make their way into the Congo Basin and West Africa there are all the signs that what has transpired in SE Asia over the past few decades, mass deforestation, land rights conflicts and species loss, will be repeated. One also wonders, will it signal the demise of the African culture of palm oil?




Notes & Sources



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