Image by Bazuki Muhammad. Borneo, 2013

Even though it is a key ingredient in about half the processed foods we eat every day, few American consumers actually know what palm oil is or where it comes from. Long a staple in the developing world, palm oil’s versatility and long shelf-life have now fueled a surging demand that has turned it into a lucrative cash crop for Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s number one and two producers.

But as Pulitzer Center grantees Steve Sapienza and Jason Motlagh report, the hidden consequences of this boom have been devastating. Enormous swaths of virgin forest and jungle in these two countries—and especially on Borneo, the island they share—have been cut down and replaced with oil palm plantations; local populations of humans and wildlife have been pushed aside; and cheap labor has become a ruthlessly exploited resource for the large corporations that run the plantations.

In a report for PBS NewsHour, Steve says that “one big reason the oil is so cheap to produce is the steady supply of migrant labor. The palm oil sector relies on some 500,000 foreign workers to feed global demand for the product and fuel Malaysia's economic prosperity.” Many of those workers are children and, according to Steve, very few of them will ever see the inside of a school.

Meanwhile, in a story for the Christian Science Monitor, Jason reports that a “rare breed of elephant appears to be the latest casualty of the palm oil boom that is sweeping Malaysian Borneo, reigniting an already heated debate over the pros and cons of the world’s cheapest cooking oil.” Also threatened, Jason reports, is the island’s orangutan population.

Top Prize

We are delighted to learn that Pulitzer Center grantee Micah Albert took home a first prize in the prestigious World Press Photo Contest for an image of a trash picker in Nairobi’s infamous Dandora garbage dump. Micah teamed up with reporter David Conrad to produce this highly praised project on life in Dandora.

Grantee Films

This week, Pulitzer Center grantees Callum Macrae and Zoe Sale launched the website for their new full-length documentary on the final weeks of the Sri Lankan government’s brutal crackdown on the decades-long Tamil insurgency. It is estimated that in late 2008 up to 70,000 civilians were killed while the world looked away. “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” is a compelling examination of some of the most egregious and under-reported war crimes of recent times. The documentary will premiere next month. You can view a trailer here.

Pulitzer Center grantee Micah Fink is trying to raise $35,000 on Kickstarter to finish his documentary film on homophobia in Jamaica. The Pulitzer Center continues to support this work as part of our larger initiative covering HIV in the Caribbean, undertaken with support from the MAC AIDS Fund. Micah has until March 2 to raise the funds — click here to see how he's doing.