Saturday, June 12, 2021

Jocelyn C. Zuckerman's "Planet Palm"

Jocelyn C. Zuckerman is the former deputy editor of Gourmet, articles editor of OnEarth, and executive editor of Modern Farmer. An alumna of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a former fellow with the Washington, DC–based Alicia Patterson Foundation, she has written for Fast Company, the American Prospect, Vogue, and many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, with her husband and two children.

Zuckerman applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World, and reported the following:
Page 99 falls close to the end of Part One of Planet Palm, in a chapter called “Playboys of the South China Sea.” Concluding the historical part of the book, the chapter focuses on a handful of Europeans and Scandinavians who relocated to Malaya and the Dutch East Indies around the turn of the last century in order to establish rubber and oil-palm plantations there. The page introduces something called FELDA, the Federal Land Development Authority, which the Malaysian government created soon after independence as part of a poverty-alleviation scheme. Its anchor program, aimed at providing “land for the landless, jobs for the jobless,” entailed the clearing of vast areas of tropical rainforest to make way for the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of poor Malay families. In addition to small plots of land, the newcomers were given rubber and oil-palm seedlings. In the decades since, the palm oil industry has exploded in Malaysia (the country’s exports are second only to those of Indonesia), and the commodity has become ubiquitous on grocery shelves worldwide.

While Page 99 focuses solely on Malaysia—the book is reported across four continents—it does touch upon an important theme of Planet Palm. In telling the story of the industry from the 17th century to the present, I try to show that many of the ills now commonly associated with it, from carbon-emitting deforestation and biodiversity loss to labor and human rights abuses, often have arisen not as a result of malice but of historical circumstance and shortsightedness. (That said, there’s plenty of racism and greed involved, too.)

What a reader won’t get from page 99 (in part because only half of it is text; it features one of the book’s 30-or-so images) is any sense of character. I made it a point to tell the story of palm oil through various historical figures—including a brilliant but arrogant British aristocrat, a once-enslaved African who became the greatest palm oil trader in coastal Nigeria, and the award-winning French author Henri Fauconnier—and through the farmers, plantation laborers, primatologists, activists, and others whose lives continue to be impacted by the commodity today.

Interestingly, FELDA turns up later in the book, when, in 2020, the United States Customs Authority bans imports of palm oil from the commercial arm of the government organization based on credible allegations of forced and child labor on its plantations. In this sense, the Test succeeds brilliantly, with the page having primed readers for an investigation into the long arm of the $65 billion industry, with its enduring legacies of racism and colonialism, stolen land and slave labor.
Visit Jocelyn C. Zuckerman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue