Palm oil is ubiquitous in our food systems. Look at the ingredients on any packaged food, and chances are you will find it there. Food companies love it, because it's cheap and abundant, so they use it whenever they can.
Demand is set to grow even further, as free trade agreements come on line that make it easier to import palm oil as a substitute for local animal or vegetable oils, as multinational food companies and supermarkets expand sales of of processed and packaged foods in the South, and as national mandates for biofuels, especially in Europe, create new markets for vegetable oils that indirectly increase demand for palm oil.
But it's not just demand that is driving the expansion. Oil palm plantations are a hot target for investors, whether from agribusiness, pension funds or corrupt tycoons looking for a safe and profitable way to launder funds. These days money is flowing into the bank accounts of palm oil companies, and they are using this cash to expand their land banks.
Producing all this cheap palm oil exacts a high price. Destruction of rainforests, labour exploitation, and brutal land grabbing: these are just a few of the nasty consequences that come with today's oil palm plantations. And, with growing demand, those consequences are spreading out to more parts of the planet.
The global expansion of oil palm plantations can only extend so far however. Since oil palms can only be cultivated economically in tropical areas near to the equator where there are high levels of rain fall, the global expansion of oil palm plantations is concentrated in certain parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America where these conditions exist. It so happens that these lands are occupied by peasants and indigenous peoples and the tropical forests that they depend on.
The expansion of oil palm plantations, therefore, is necessarily a story about the displacement of these people and the destruction of their forests and farms to make way for monoculture plantations.