What do frozen pizzas, lipstick, shampoo, instant noodles, biofuels, Nutella, the Amazon, Peru and my next two months as an Insight Fellow all have in common?

Palm oil.

Did you guess correctly? If so, consider yourself extremely well-informed… it’s hard enough to keep track of my location, let alone a mysterious vegetable oil that has made its way into some 50% of consumer products.

This is my first week with the United Nations Development Programme in Lima, Peru. I’ve joined their Sustainable Productive Landscapes team for the next two months in order to provide additional expertise in negotiation, conflict analysis and resolution.

Palm oil is a vegetable oil produced from the oil palm tree. The oil palm is originally from West Africa, however, during the 1870s the British introduced the plant to colonies in Southeast Asia where conditions allowed for an impressive increase in yields.  Since the 1960s, oil palm production has increased dramatically and is making its way across the globe to South America. Oil palms grow well in flat, tropical climates, making the Amazon Rainforest a prime candidate for the next oil palm expansion.

To make consumable products, the oil palm fruit is harvested and taken to nearby processing plants where it’s cooked at very high temperatures. The heat softens the palm fruit until the capsules containing the oil break open releasing the liquid gold. The oil is then refined and sent to all sorts of industries. Between 1966 and 2013, palm oil went from 8% to 58% of total vegetable oil exports. You can find palm oil or one of its byproducts in just about anything. Next time you are at the grocery store, check-out the list of ingredients. It can be identified by any of the following ingredient names: Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol. (Note, while palm oil is a vegetable oil, not all products labeled vegetable oil contain palm oil. Studies indicate that between a third and a half of products (country-depending) that label vegetable oil on their list of ingredients contain palm oil.)

Notice the straight rows!

In economic terms, oil palm is an attractive industry due to its efficiency and vast global market. Oil palm is the most efficient oleaginous crop in the world. (Oleaginous is just another fancy word for “rich in or producing oil”.) The prime growing locations are cleared either by burning or cutting down the rainforest vegetation. Oil palm seedlings are planted in straight lines- we call this monoculture farming because it’s the practice of growing one crop. The first fruits are suitable for harvest after three or four years and then a tree will continue to produce for about 30 years when it becomes too tall for easy harvesting and cut down.

The red bunches are the palm fruit.

These plantations conflict with environmental initiatives to protect biodiversity, curb greenhouse gas emissions, and prevent deforestation.  Large-scale forest clearing also directly conflicts with the lives of local, indigenous peoples and harvesting the fruit requires hard labor, which then introduces questions of compensation, benefits, and working conditions for laborers. Therein lies some of the conflict…s.

The UN is in an interesting position because it has a mandate to advance “sustainable development, meaning development that considers the three pillars: economy, society, and the environment. Over the next 6 years, they intend to work with all the various actors in the Peruvian oil palm sector in an effort to develop an industry that is beneficial to all stakeholders. It’s a large project and I’m only here a short time but my goal is to provide the team with skills in negotiation, and mediation with which they can advance their role as facilitators of dialogue and I hope to leave them with new insights on key actors in the conflict.

It promises to be an interesting, busy, and fun two months!