Palm Oil Problems

Matilda Pilacapio
Rainforest Action Network, via Flickr

Liz Waid and Adam Navis look at a very popular and useful product - palm oil. However, big palm oil farms also cause many problems.

Watch Video


Voice 1

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Joshua Leo.

Voice 2

And I’m Liz Waid. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1

In 2009, one woman brought a message to one of the world’s largest companies. The company was Cargill, a major farm business. She told Cargill that she wanted them to change the way they worked. She saw how their business methods were harming the environment and her community. This woman was Matilda Pilacapio.

Voice 2

Matilda Pilacapio owns land in the Sangarai Valley. This is in Milne Bay province, Papua New Guinea. Pilacapio has been a government official. She fights for human rights. And she works with a local group called “Milne Bay Women in Agriculture”. As a community leader, Pilacapio believed she had to do something.

Voice 1

Milne Bay is a very small but important place. This is one of the places where large companies like Cargill work with local farmers. Together they grow oil palm plants. These plants produce very useful oil called palm oil. But there are many problems with the current system of farming oil palm plants. These problems influence the farmers and the environment. Pilacapio told the Rainforest Action Network:

Voice 3

“I think it is a disease all through the country. A lot of the land, especially the good land, has been taken up for growing palm oil. A lot of the vegetation plants are lost. A lot of the forests and everything seems to be just going into palm oil. It brings a lot of destruction when we lose a lot of land, resources, and the environment. It is something that is common going through Papua New Guinea. And it is causing a lot of problems. Rivers and creeks have dried up because palm oil takes a lot of water. And good water has just gone into oil palm roots. So it has brought a lot of destruction to the lives of our people.”

Voice 2

Palm oil is extremely useful oil. The oil comes from the fruit of the oil palm tree. Some people simply use it to cook fresh food. But companies use it in many different products too. It is used in packaged food - food that stays good for a long time. It is also found in body care products like lotion and make-up. And it can be used as a fuel to power vehicles. Because it is so useful, demand for palm oil is great. More and more people are producing and using this oil for all kinds of purposes.

Voice 1

But producing this oil comes at a great cost to the environment. Growing oil palm trees often means destroying valuable natural areas like peatland and rainforests. An internet blog of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is called Think Forward. This blog reports that Papua New Guinea is home to some of the last remaining rainforests. These special ecosystems are home to many different plants, animals and people. This area in Papua New Guinea contains 5% of global biodiversity. Experts say that the people groups here speak over 830 languages. When the rainforests disappear, these people groups are affected. The languages are lost. And the many plants and animals disappear.

Voice 2

Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s biggest producers of palm oil. In Indonesia, many animals are losing their homes to make room for oil palms. Elephants, tigers, and orangutans all live in the rainforests. Many of these animals are endangered. They may disappear unless people do something to save them.

Voice 1

Rainforests and peatlands can also hold gases like carbon dioxide inside of them. Scientists believe that gases like carbon dioxide are bad for the environment. When these areas are destroyed, they release carbon dioxide into the air.

Voice 2

Pilacapio has seen this damage to the environment. But she has also seen much damage to the traditional way of life in Papua New Guinea. She has seen the negative result for the people there. She told the blog Think Forward:

Voice 3

“Life has changed in a big way. We have a traditional way of life of sharing and giving. What we have, we share with our village. Now our people live in a monetary world. Our people are at a point of change.”

Voice 1

Pilacapio is trying to change the way that Cargill works in this area. Traditionally, much of the land in Papua New Guinea is owned by a community. So companies try to find new ways to control the land. Many companies enter legal agreements with community members. The company charges the community for costs like transporting goods. Then, they will take much of the profit. The people agree to plant oil palm until they pay off the money they owe.

Voice 2

But Pilacapio argues that community farmers who enter these agreements suffer. They do not understand the legal documents they sign to work with Cargill. It is not easy to get legal help. And even if the farmers know where they can get it, it is often too far away.

Voice 1

Pilacapio also says these farmers depend too much on the oil palm plant. When the price of the palm oil changes, they do not have money or food. She also describes how many young people cannot become farmers. Too much land is used for oil palm. There is not enough new land to make new farms!

Voice 2

Pilacapio would like to see Cargill work more fairly with farmers. She wants farmers to understand the legal documents they sign to work with big companies. She also wants farmers to return to a more traditional way of farming. She wants them to grow groups of different crops. That way, if one crop fails, farmers can still depend on their other crops.

Voice 1

Cargill and other big companies that use palm oil have agreed to deal with these issues. They have agreed to work toward more sustainable methods of farming oil palm plants. Sustainable methods would save the natural environment of rainforests and peatlands. Other companies have also agreed to use less palm oil in their products.

Voice 2

Individual people can also have an influence on palm oil production. People can know if the products they use have palm oil in them. They can investigate to see if that palm oil is from a sustainable place. These are sometimes difficult things to do. But they could have a big influence on the environment and the people who farm palm oil. This is one way people can make a difference.

Voice 1

The writer and producer of this program was Liz Waid. The voices were from the United States. All quotes have been adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can hear this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called “Palm Oil Problems”.

Voice 2

You can also receive Spotlight programs every week - directly to your computer - with the Spotlight podcast. Just follow the podcast link on the Spotlight website – If you have a comment or question about any Spotlight program you can email us at Or you can leave a comment on the script page of any program.

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

(Get our app for Android or for Apple devices. Let us know how you like it and write a review!)


Do you use any products that include palm oil? Have you ever looked for this ingredient?


Avatar Spotlight
said on July 27, 2011

i like this lesson

Avatar Spotlight
said on July 28, 2011

me too!!

Avatar Spotlight
Martin speaker
said on July 29, 2011

Good morning,

Perhaps we should reduce the palm oil consumption around the world. I think for most of us is not important to use cosmetic products with the addition of palm oil…

Avatar Spotlight
said on September 01, 2012

Nowadays the environment become very worst because people. They just think about their monetary work. There is a clean up day in the world to clean garbage, so we must create another days for people learn about the environment !
Thank spotlight for a helpful material !

Avatar Spotlight
Rain Bows
said on September 02, 2012

We should all have awareness about our environment.
I’ve heard before about the palm oil and the damage from it’s production.
It is good that now I know a little more about it.
Producing is good but always having respect for nature.
Thanks for the program.
SofĂ­a Miketta,

Avatar Spotlight
said on July 21, 2016

Spreading farms planting oil palms are occupying land in the rain forests and destroying natural habitats of wild animals. Growing oil palms is so popular mainly because its low price, it represens big business! Unfortunately, palm oil can have negative influences on people’s health particularly it can harm children but we cannot avoid its consumation because it has been adding to many food and cosmetic products nowadays. That bad situation should change, improve to prevent another environment damaging just as protect people health at all events.

Van Hoa's avatar
Van Hoa
said on July 24, 2016

Good job! Thanks for reading.  I think you should forcus on some more difficult words. For Example in this topic, I think “ecosystems, disease, sustainable,  peatlands,  biodiversity,  creeks..” are

Kaleb Kolaibi's avatar
Kaleb Kolaibi
said on August 13, 2016

I don’t see that this is problem (or big problem) because the palm oil is plants. That means we exchange plants by plants.
No, I don’t use any products that includes palm oil but I’m seeing it at markets especially that uses at cooking.
God bless you