Gender and the Past and Future of Palm Oil

Guest blog post by Jonathan E. Robins, author of Oil Palm: A Global History

The modern palm oil industry has a masculine face. Visitors to plantations can see men wielding wobbly cutting tools as they slice fruit from palm trees, and heave the spiky bunches of fruit into trucks. Men drive the bulldozers and excavators clearing forest to make way for new plantations, and they still make up most of the faces in corporate boardrooms.

But recent investigations—like the one that triggered a US Customs and Border Protection ban on major palm oil exporters—have called attention to the conditions of women in the industry. In plantations, women perform less visible work: spreading fertilizer, culling weeds, tending seedlings, gathering loose fruit. They often do this for low pay, facing unsafe exposure to chemicals and physical and sexual abuse. The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil identified gender inequity as one of the most pressing issues facing this big, fast-growing industry.

Women’s work has been vital to the palm oil industry for its entire history. And that history shows that women have also been at the forefront of struggles for a more just palm oil industry.

Women in the African palm oil industry

For centuries, communities cultivating the African oil palm tree practiced a gendered division of labor. Men climbed trees to cut palm fruit, while women engaged in the cooking work that produced oil—boiling fruit, pounding it, and squeezing oily juices out of the pulp.

Historically, women often retained ownership of a share of the finished oil, or claimed the oil-rich kernels inside as compensation for their work. Women dominated the markets where oil was sold—first to local consumers, and later to European agents buying it to feed Europe’s soap, candle, and margarine factories.

A man and two women making palm oil ca. 1900. The women are working in a large vessel built into the ground for crushing palm fruit and washing out the oil. J. Adam, Le Palmier à huile (1910), p. 152.

To meet growing demand for palm oil in the 1840s, producers in several regions adopted labor-saving processes that reduced or eliminated the need for women’s labor. By letting fruit ferment, young men without wives could dispense with women’s cooking work. The “hard oil” that resulted was foul-smelling and thoroughly rancid, but it served as a cheap substitute for tallow, whale oil, and other fats in Europe’s soap and candle factories.

After the “Scramble for Africa” in the 1880-1890s, colonial efforts to squeeze more palm oil out of Africa repeatedly foundered on gender issues. In Sierra Leone, for example, men refused to sell palm fruit to soap magnate William Lever’s new oil mills. As one official explained, their wives “would escape their share of the work.” (Men and women did the math: selling fruit would pay a lot less than making oil in the household.) 

Into the 1950s, women in Ghana, Benin, and Nigeria rallied against colonial mechanization projects—or rather against how mechanization excluded women from the industry. When men sold fruit to mills, their wives lost access to oil, kernels, and even kernel shells and exhausted fruit fiber, both of which had value as cooking fuel. 

A kernel cracking machine at work in Mensah the Oil Palm Farmer (1956), a colonial propaganda pamphlet aimed at convincing men to invest in machinery. Women were ready to use labor-saving machines—when they could keep ownership of the finished oil and kernels.

Women and the plantation system 

The oil palm plantation industry emerged in Southeast Asia after 1910, and it radically reshaped the social and environmental conditions of oil palm work. Plantation companies now owned the trees, and the workers were migrants with no rights to land and little recourse against abusive employers. While men still cut fruit on plantations, machines made the oil. Women were relegated to low-paid tasks like weeding, applying chemicals, and the vital work of hand-pollinating oil palms. (The oil palm’s relocation to Southeast Asia separated it from its natural pollinators.) On many plantations, women were also subject to sexual exploitation. 

Independence from colonial rule brought changes to the plantation system, but women were still disadvantaged. Technical innovations, including the introduction of a pollinating insect, tended to reduce or eliminate women’s employment. World Bank-funded settlement projects across the region only gave land titles to married men; women had no formal claims to palm trees or income, despite the labor they provided.

As oil palm plantations expand in Africa and Latin America, they risk bringing the same gendered injustices seen in Southeast Asian plantation systems. But gender inequity isn’t an inevitable part of the oil palm business. In Ghana, for example, women machine-owners now lead a vibrant artisanal oil industry. Women have also been at the forefront of campaigns against plantation land-grabs

Plantation companies are recognizing the importance of women’s work, too. After seeing how men argued with their wives over the collection of loose palm fruit around harvesting sites, one company in Papua New Guinea began buying loose fruit directly from women. The company got more fruit, women got their own cash incomes, and conflicts over the blurry division between “household” and “economic” work diminished. It’s a clear example of how important women remain in the oil palm industry—and of the injustices that come when women are ignored.

Jonathan E. Robins is associate professor of history at Michigan Technological University.