Friday, November 6, 2009

The Body Shop in Palm Oil Fiasco

The Body Shop. Photograph: Linda Nylind.

The Body Shop, the cosmetics giant that built its reputation on being a member of Fair Trade (paying a fair wage to local farmers for their produce) and sourcing their ingredients from companies that protect local farmers’ rights, is in the middle of a controversy.

It turns out the organization The Body Shop buys its palm oil from recently evicted 123 peasant farmers to develop a new plantation. Daabon Organics, a Colombian firm, supplies the British chain with 90% of its palm oil. They are also part of a consortium that asked the courts to remove the farmers from a sprawling ranch 320 km (200 mi) north of the capital city of Bogotá so they could grow the incredibly lucrative African palm. In what I can only consider to be an act of overkill, police in riot gear evicted these unarmed peasant farms in July of this year.

Solicitors for the farmers and their families are appealing the decision with the help of the British charity, Christian Aid. They claim that local farmers have lived and worked on the land for over a decade; and, had already applied for the right to own it under Columbian law before the consortium bought it.

This embarrassing disclosure could adversely affect their business as the majority of their success is linked to their claim that they respect the rights of local farmers in developing countries. The chain uses Daabon’s oil to make the approximately 7.5 million bars of soap they sell every year.

On a larger scale, this dilemma will serve to highlight the many battles farmers and palm oil companies wage globally as the product becomes increasingly lucrative.

"The Body Shop should reconsider its decision to buy palm oil from Daabon in the light of this conflict," said Catherine Bouley of Christian Aid. "The Colombian government would like to triple the area under palm cultivation, which will only exacerbate the problem of displacement."

In December 2006, Daabon’s subsidiary CI Tequendama and a partner company bought Las Pavas, a 1,100 hectare (2,700 acre) ranch in Southern Bolivar province. In January 2009 they applied for the eviction order against the 123 farming families and enforced it in July 2009.

Solicitors for the farmers claim the consortium should have been aware that local farmers had been cultivating crops including plantain, maize and squash for more than ten years. The peasants claim the only time they had not occupied the land consecutively for the past ten years was the six months they had been forced off the land in 2006 by paramilitary groups. They had made a legal submission to own the land when they returned to it in late 2006. Under Colombian law, ownership can be granted to farmers who have occupied abandoned land for more than three years.

The peasants formed a co-operative and submitted an official claim for the land several months before the consortium’s purchase. The solicitor for the families, Banessa Estrada, says, "It was an illegal eviction because they did not take into account the claim of the land made by the peasants."

The evicted peasants, having nowhere to go, have set up a camp in the schoolyard of the nearby village. With no land and no jobs, the 500 men women and children survive on corn fritters and cheese donated by aid agencies. With no homes anymore, the food is cooked over open fires.

All this goes against the eco-friendly image The Body Shop has worked so hard to cultivate. When The Body Shop initially began its dealings with Daabon in June 2007, they challenged other manufacturers and retailers to join them in slowing the environmental and social effects of unsustainable production.

"We have changed our entire soap range to be manufactured using palm oil from one of the leading sustainable plantations – Daabon in Colombia. We have commissioned our own audit and visited the plantation to ensure the protection and welfare of communities, workers and the surrounding jungle is preserved.

"Production impacts on the rights of indigenous populations, often creates poor labour conditions and has severe health implications for women working on the plantations," their report read.

The Body Shop claims via its website that is committed to community trade by seeking out small-scale farmers, traditional craftspeople, rural co-operatives and tribal villages.

Over the past 15 years, the demand for palm oil has grown wildly. Uses have been found for it in foods such as margarine, potato chips, and chocolate; and, in products such as soap, cosmetics and biofuel. In personal care products it is used as a hardener.

According to market researchers, the number of products using palm oil approximately doubled from 246 in 2006 to 497 in 2007. The more palm oil is used the more plantations must be planted to supply that demand.

Environmental groups are protesting that forests across the world are being razed to make room for more palm oil plantations that, by their very existence, endanger species, reduce biodiversity, cause climate change and displace local indigenous people among other concerns.

Greenpeace points out that new plantations established on peat bogs release greenhouse gases when the bogs are drained and burned.

A spokeswoman for Daabon denies the company has ever been involved in any other land disputes; and, claims it was seeking to resolve the case through the courts and "community outreach". She went on to deny that Daabon had any knowledge of the claim by the farmers before it bought the land.

"The Daabon group and its subsidiaries have never had any previous land conflicts and would under no circumstances knowingly violate the rights of legitimate land holders," she said.

"[A] consultation will focus on explaining the company's plans for an inclusive model which could offer better living standards and opportunities for communities in the areas, similar to that developed in the Magdalena region."

A spokesman for The Body Shop said that the disputed land has not produced oil for its products.

"The Body Shop is committed to the defense of human rights and trading ethically, and works closely with suppliers to uphold our values. We are aware of the allegations regarding land rights in Colombia and we are liaising with our suppliers in that region and monitoring the situation closely."

Via Guardian

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