Long a preferred cooking ingredient in developing countries, palm oil is now in greater demand in Western markets because of its low price and long shelf life. Image by Jason Motlagh. Malaysia, 2012.

From cosmetics to cookies, palm oil is a key ingredient in about half of all the products found in your local supermarket. Most Americans have only a vague idea of what palm oil is or where it even comes from, but this commodity—long a staple in Third World diets—has now become big business in Borneo.

Pulitzer Center grantee Jason Motlagh, writing in The Washington Post, notes that palm oil is bringing billions in profits to Indonesia and Malaysia, the two countries that share the jungle island and the two largest producers of palm oil for the global market.

But profits at what cost? “Environmental and human rights activists warn that the boom is doing irreparable damage to rare biodiversity and accelerating the effects of global warming, with no concern for long-term social costs,” Jason writes. “They add that indigenous people are being pushed off their ancestral land to make way for plantations staffed by tens of thousands of migrant workers, who are often denied health care and education services.”

Earlier this autumn, Jason and Steve Sapienza documented labor abuses in the Thai shrimp industry. Their reporting is part of the Pulitzer Center’s continuing interest on the local cost of global goods. And last week, five Pulitzer Center grantees were featured in our "Global Goods, Local Costs" exhibit at FotoWeekDC. For those who missed FotoWeek (or those who want to relive it), you can see photos of the exhibit and #WhoMadeMy, our interactive social media part of the exhibit. You can also watch the photojournalists discuss their work as part of a panel at George Washington University.

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Medical tourism is big business in India; it’s also controversial. Grantee Sonia Shah spoke with doctors who question the priority given to foreign patients in a country where half the children remain unvaccinated.

Her story, on the front page of Le Monde Diplomatique, one of France’s most influential publications, results from a Pulitzer Center initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to extend our model to Europe. One of the hallmarks of our model is educational outreach, and Sonia’s story comes just days after Mark Schulte, our education director, returned from a whirlwind visit to Paris, London and Berlin during which he and several of our grantees made presentations at more than a dozen schools and universities.

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Today and tomorrow, we are marking World AIDS Day. We invite you to learn more about AIDS in the Caribbean by visiting our Emmy Award-winning production Live.Hope.Love.

Until next week,

Tom Hundley
Senior Editor

Project

Profitable as it is for multi-national companies, palm oil is extracted at a heavy social and environmental cost, making it one of the most controversial commodities in the world.

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