Thoughts from Ghanaian Palm Oil Plantation

I travelled to Ghana in 2013. Ghana is one of the major palm oil producing countries in the world. I had the chance to go visit one of these palm oil plantations, and then documented my experience. Its not eloquent, or well written, just my thoughts I jotted down only hours after visiting. I wanted to share this because I wrote a 101 Guide about palm oil, and I think its easy to read the statistics and facts without actually feeling anything. I wanted to share this journal entry, because this day is why I continue to advocate for fair business practices.

"Today we went to a palm oil production tour. I had my speculations that we weren't going to an ethical palm oil factory, so I was preparing for the worst. When we arrived, Mr. Ben, a worker, came and met us, and we started walking on to the palm oil tree grounds. He told us that there were 190 ish blocks of trees, each with 6-36 hectares of land within each block. 6 hectares could contain more than 600 trees, so the amount of trees on the property was ridiculous. 

Mr. Ben told us that they used chemicals to ward off bugs, and to increase production. At that point, I immediately knew that this wasn't a palm oil factory i'd enjoy. The use of palm oil is one of the biggest up and coming resources. Mr. Ben confirmed that palm oil is used in cosmetics, food products and clothing. We then went to a small local palm oil production 'factory'. It wasn't a shock when we arrived. My mind had formed the worst, and here was something close. With rusted machines, and thick black and orange/yellow oil making all surfaces slick, and a putrid odour, it was hard to take in. There was one woman working, wearing a tattered yellow dress, and kids were helping her, or playing around the work area. 

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Mr. Ben started to tell us how on a local scale women produced the oil. They take the bundles of red palm oil, and then burn it in a garbage can, then put it in a machine, where they hand pump it to produce oil. The leftover 'pulp' is then re-burned and used as kindling for fires. The oil is then collected from the machine. 

At one point, Mr. Ben casually said, "Poverty is killing us." Up until that point I had been disgusted by what I was seeing, not because it shocked me, but because I knew it happens all over the world. When he said that one sentence though, something broke inside of me. The fact that Mr. Ben was seemingly unaware of the extent the company who owned the palm trees was using him, and he in turn wasn't even addressing the woman working, treating her as if she were invisible, and that the kids working should be in school, not a product of the endless cycle of their parents being exploited, therefore they can't afford to send their child to school because their income is less than 20$ a day, and if the father is a labourer he's only getting paid 1-5$ a day, whereas the company is making millions; just rips my stomach apart and makes me want to scream. The fact that a man can say that poverty is killing him, while another man is profiting at the pain of that man is twisted. This world confuses me. I'm confused at how this is normal. 

Going back to our camp, we debriefed our experiences. For the first time in my life, I was speechless (Seriously. I didn't say a word.) Some of the people in the group were shocked at the fact that this exploitation exists. I didn't blame them, or was upset at the fact that some of them didn't know, but just thought, if this group of people who all want to change the world didn't realize that these kinds of horrors were happening around the world, how were others going to?"

I spoke about fair trade in this journal article, and while I deeply believe in fair trade, it only accounts for such a small quantity of plantations. What needs to happen is an institutional and societal shift to value these palm oil workers, and not only pay them fair wages, but also  provide a safe work environment. Without these changes, the people that work on the plantations will continue to be exploited simply for our benefit. 

 

- Emilie Maine.