The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is a native of west and southwest Africa. Presently, 30% of the world’s vegetable oil is derived from the nutty, spiky fruits of this plant species. Introduced to colonial Southeast Asia in the mid-nineteenth century, today 80% of all globally produced and exported crude palm oil comes from tropical Indonesia and Malaysia.
Since the 1990s, palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world because it is relatively cheap and durable compared to other oils, and it is very popular for cooking, especially in highly populated countries such as Indonesia, India, and China. With a nomenclature of more than 200 chemical descriptors tracing back to crude palm oil and its versatile fatty acids, it is often quite difficult to discern within commercial products. Palm oil (or a derivative product, such as glycerin) is typically a hidden ingredient in most goods, ranging from processed foods and cosmetics to lubricants and fuels. This is why Europe and the Unites States are major consumers of palm oil; at the same time, they profit from the export of fertilizers and pesticides to the tropics. The dramatic surge in palm oil production is a relatively recent phenomenon; global production increased 65% between 1995 and 2002. There is no end in sight: current estimates suggest that the demand for palm oil will double in the next decade and triple by 2050.
Land clearance for plantations inevitably is a key cause deforestation, which directly links these practices to climate change and global temperature rise. As a result of logging and forest fires for land clearance, 25% of the annual global CO2 emissions worldwide can be attributed to deforestation. While logging rates have declined recently in other critical rainforest areas, Indonesia has seen rapid deforestation increasing annually since the 1980s, especially on Borneo and Sumatra—the two islands which account for 96% of Indonesia’s palm oil production. Rainforests in this region grow in peat land, a thick layer of soil composed of decaying and compressed organic matter. As a kind of proto-coal, peat is one of the most efficient carbon sinks on the planet. It is also highly flammable, making forest fires very difficult to control; once the peat is burning, it releases massive quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere and produces a thick, choking haze. While Indonesia has ranked as the third largest carbon emitter worldwide (after the U.S. and China), in 2015 this rank was overturned as massive forest fires raged across over 5000 kilometers of forest. In a single month, these fires released more CO2 into the atmosphere than the entire U.S. economy produces in a whole year. The environmental journalist George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, called these fires the “greatest environmental disaster of the twenty-first century.”
The centerpiece of this installation is a collection of one hundred specimens of products containing either palm oil or a palm oil derivative; these samples demonstrate the variety of manufactured goods which use palm oil, and connect every one of their consumer to the deforestation in the tropics. As an array of specimens nearly as colorful as those nineteenth-century cases of tropical butterflies or beetles, this collection presents the postnatural commodities annihilating tropical biodiversity in the Anthropocene.