Palm Oil Pushes Indigenous off Land

Terri Hansen
12/27/10

It’s the usual morning rush. You put your makeup on, take a dry creamer in your coffee, luxuries we don’t give a thought to in the U.S. What – luxuries?

When it’s “pushing indigenous peoples off their lands,” it’s a luxury, said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “Hundreds are murdered and thousands are forced off their land of origin to grow the palm oil that goes in your cosmetics.”

Besides deforesting land for palm oil plantations, the controversial crop also used in biofuels, detergents, toothpaste and foods has fueled a ruthless landgrab by paramilitary groups in Colombia’s rural areas. In a desperate bid to protect themselves Colombia’s Internally Displaced People have set up “Humanitarian Zones” on small patches of collective land.

Now, Survival International is reporting that the hunter-gatherer Penan and other tribes are under threat from new plans to expand palm oil plantations in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

The Sarawak government has announced plans to double the area used for palm oil by 2020 using indigenous land that it says is “mostly under-utilized and without titles.” The government target for 2020 is two million hectares.

Sarawak’s land development minister James Masing told Malaysian newspaper The Star that palm oil had emerged as the state’s third largest foreign exchange earner after petroleum and liquefied natural gas. He said his ministry was working to remove red tape and look into a “more aggressive development”’ of indigenous land.

A Dec. 20 Survival release that followed said logging companies have destroyed much of the rainforest that the Penan rely on, and now their homelands are being sold off for palm oil plantations. Indigenous people have filed more than 100 land rights cases in the Sarawak courts.

“The forest is my roof and my shelter, and the forest is also where I can find food to eat,” one Penan woman told Survival. “But when the oil palm comes in, everything will be gone.”

Matu is a Penan headman whose land has already been planted with palm oil. “Our land and our forests have been taken by force,” Matu said. “Our fruit trees are gone, our hunting grounds are very limited, and the rivers are polluted, so the fish are dying. Before, there were lots of wild boar around here. Now, we only find one every two or three months.”

“The Sarawak government is, as usual, putting profit before people, and is blatant in its disregard for indigenous peoples’ rights,” Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said. “More palm oil plantations will be a disaster for the Penan, and they don’t want them.”

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