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Palm oil is ubiquitous – yet the farming of palm oil trees is environmentally disastrous

“Planet Palm”
author Jocelyn Zuckerman

By MARTIN ZEILIG Palm oil has been criticized by many, including scientists, activists and organizations such as Greenpeace and the Palm Oil Investigations, notes online information.
In a report published by the BBC, environmentalists argue that the farming of oil palm trees is having damaging effects on the environment.

“Palm oil production and deforestation go hand in hand,” says the report. “To build palm oil plantations, producers clear trees in tropical rainforests, destroying the biodiverse regions. Deforestation is a significant contributor to climate change; when the forests are lost, carbon is released into the atmosphere, causing global warming.”

In her book, author Jocelyn Zuckerman spent years travelling the world, “from Liberia to Indonesia, India to Brazil” covering the human and environmental impacts of “this poorly understood plant.”
Her book, “Planet Palm,” is a compelling blend of history, science, politics, and food as experienced by the people whose lives have been impacted by, as she states, “this hidden ingredient.”

Joceln C. Zuckerman is the former 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.

Ms. Zuckerman agreed to an email interview with The Jewish Post & News.

JP&N: Why did you decide to write this book? How long did it take to write?
JZ: It started with a trip I took a few years ago to Liberia, the West African country founded by freed American slaves. I’d gone there to write a magazine article about land grabs. This was the trend, in the aftermath of the food and fuel crises of 2008, of agribusiness and investment banks buying up huge swathes of fertile land in faraway places where governance is maybe not all that strong and traditional land rights are easy to exploit.

When I got down on the ground, I found a landscape that was completely barren. Two palm oil companies had cut down the rainforest in order to plant oil palm for miles and miles. In one village, a scattering of mud-block and thatch houses located inside an oil-palm concession owned by a Singapore-based company, a 50-year-old father of seven described how the outsiders had shown up and bulldozed the town in which he’d spent his entire life.
Other villagers talked of how the company had destroyed their crops and gravesites, polluted their streams, and run them out of their homes. I was so disturbed by the destruction I saw in Liberia that when I got home I dove into the topic, trying to learn everything I could about it. And I was fairly astonished by what I found. It turns out that palm oil has played an outsize role in shaping the world as we know it, from spurring the colonization of Nigeria and greasing the gears of the Second Industrial Revolution to transforming the societies of Southeast Asia and beyond.

“Following the plant’s journey over the decades,” I write in my book’s introduction, “served as a sort of master class in everything from colonialism and commodity fetishism to globalization and the industrialization of our modern food system.”
From the time I decided to write the book to the time I finished was about five years, but I was also doing other magazine work during that time.

JP&N: What has been the effect of palm plantations and the palm oil industry on the natural environment, and the economies of affected countries?
JZ: It’s had a profound effect on tropical forests and biodiversity. The landscapes of Indonesia and Malaysia in particular (the two countries account for 85 percent of global production) have been ravaged. In the last two decades alone, Malaysia has lost 20 million acres of tree cover.
The oil palm grows best at ten degrees to the north and south of the equator, which is a swathe of land that corresponds with the planet’s tropical rainforests. And tropical forests, though they cover less than ten percent of Earth’s land surface, support more than half of the world’s biodiversity.
The continued razing of the rainforest for oil-palm development means that creatures like the orangutan, the Sumatrian rhino and elephant, in addition to hundreds of bird species, are losing more and more of their natural habitat.
The palm oil industry is largely responsible for the fact that more than 100,000 orangutans have been wiped off the planet in the last 15 years. In 2019, hundreds of international experts issued a report finding that global biodiversity is declining faster than at any other time in human history, with one million species already facing extinction, many within decades, unless the world takes transformative action.

Most of the folks where I reported from in Southeast Asia, Central America, and Africa used to work as farmers supporting themselves and their families by growing food. But as more and more of the land has been planted with oil palm—and often the water polluted by agrichemicals—they have no food and no means of supporting themselves and their families.
There’s also a connection to pandemics. Something like 75 percent of today’s emerging infectious diseases originate in animals, and 60 per cent of those can spread directly from animals. Over the past few decades, the number of such animal-to-human transmissions has skyrocketed.
A third of these new diseases can be linked directly to deforestation and agricultural intensification, most of it involving tropical rainforests. So, cutting down these forests doesn’t just deprive orangutans and rhinos of their homes, it also sends virus-carrying wildlife like bats in search of new habitat, forcing them into closer contact with humans.

There is also well-documented evidence of forced and child labor on plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. Malaysia, in particular, relies on hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from countries like Indonesia, India, and Bangladesh to harvest its oil-palm fruits. The workers often are brought in by recruiters who lie to them about good jobs in hotels and restaurants and then confiscate their passports and traffic them to remote plantations.

Last year, the United States announced that it would block shipments of palm oil from two major Malaysian producers over allegations of forced labor, including concerns over child workers and physical and sexual abuse on plantations. And women on three continents told me that they’d been made sick from the pesticides they were forced to handle. Many have suffered from collapsed uteruses as a result of carrying the heavy sacks of fruit.
Some made the equivalent of $2 a day, after working for decades. Workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, like those on other continents, complained of skin irritation, blisters, and eye damage resulting from the chemicals they handle. Of 43 male employees interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2019, 27 said that they had become impotent since starting the job. A review published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2019 found that male oil-palm workers in Malaysia were suffering from widespread abnormal sperm.

In 2015, an extended episode of haze linked to fires on oil-palm plantations led to an estimated 100,000 premature deaths in Southeast Asia. (A few weeks into the crisis, government officials ordered the evacuation of all babies under the age of six months.)
As yet untallied is the long-term health damage caused by the fires. The fires proved so difficult to extinguish in part because of the unique composition of the terrain on which so many of them burned. Indonesia is home to Earth’s largest composition of tropical peatlands—soils formed over thousands of years through the accumulation of organic matter—and when farmers and palm oil companies drain and burn that land as a precursor to planting, massive quantities of carbon dioxide escape into the atmosphere. The annual carbon emissions from Indonesia’s peatlands rival those of the entire state of California.

JP&N: What else would you like our readers to know?
JZ: Trade liberalization and economic growth in middle-income countries over the last two decades has led to a surge of oil flowing across international borders, where it’s enabled the production of ever-greater amounts of deep-fried snacks and ultra-processed foods, benefiting multinational companies like Unilever, PepsiCo, Grupo Bimbo, Nestle, Cargill, and others. Rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are soaring in India and in the poorer countries where the multinational corporations that peddle such junk are focused on growing their markets.

Though most of us tend to blame sugar for the world’s weight woes, refined vegetable oils have added far more calories to the global diet in the last half-century than any other food group. A few months ago, a new study headed by researchers at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine found that palmitic acid, a fatty acid found in palm oil, alters the cancer genome increasing the likelihood that cancer will spread.
The industry is also impacting health and nutrition at its source. Studies have shown that diets among indigenous peoples in Indonesia are healthier than those of people working and living on the fringes of plantations, rather than in the forests as they’ve traditionally done.

In my book, I trace the political forces and dark money at work behind the scenes of the $65 billion business—from permits issued from inside jail cells and owners hidden behind offshore shell companies to long-dead villagers signing away their rights and elders hoodwinked by sweet-talking executives.

In 2019, the World Health Organization compared the tactics used by the palm oil industry to those employed by the tobacco and alcohol lobbies. It recently emerged that a Malaysian campaign accusing industry critics of being “neo-colonialists” was in fact the (very-highly-compensated) work of a Washington, DC–based lobbying firm, one whose previous clients include Exxon and the former Burmese military junta.
PepsiCo, the parent company of Frito-Lay, uses a lot of palm oil in its snacks. Activists have traced that oil to environmental destruction and labor abuses—what they call “conflict palm oil”. There have also been campaigns targeting Nestle, Kellogg’s, and Cargill for environmental and/or labor abuses linked to their supply chains.
They’ve definitely gotten some traction, and there have been reforms in the industry, though there is still a ways to go. Across the globe, those who have dared to speak out against the industry, whether environmental activists, laborers, peasant farmers, or investigative journalists, have often been met with violence.

Read labels. Reach out to the companies that use a lot of palm oil (PepsiCo, Dunkin Donuts, Unilever, Grupo Bimbo, etc) and ask them where they source it and how they can be sure that there wasn’t deforestation or land-grabbing or other labor or human rights abuses involved. Go to the websites of the Rainforest Action Network, Mighty Earth, Global Witness, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace, and get involved in their palm oil campaigns.

“Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up In Everything—And Endangered The World”
By Jocelyn C. Zuckerman
(The New Press 335 pg.$27.99 U.S.)

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Brothers Arnie & Michael Usiskin’s Warkov-Safeer a throwback to days of long ago

Arnie (left) & Michael Usiskin

By MYRON LOVE Step into Warkov-Safeer on Hargrave in the Exchange District and you’ll feel like you’ve walked back in time to an earlier era. The shelves are crammed full of shoe-related accessories – soles, heels, laces, polish, threads, needles, dyes – and other leather-related needs. 
“There used to be a shoemaker on every corner,” says Michael Usiskin, whose family has operated the wholesaler for more than 50 years.  “People used to keep their shoes for years.  They might resole them ten times.  Now you might have five pairs in your closet – different shoes for different occasions, and buy a new pair every year or two.”
Usiskin adds that “there is no place else like us between Toronto and Vancouver.  When we moved here in the 1970s, this area was buzzing with garment workers and sewing machines. This was a hub of activity. It’s a lot quieter now.”
While the Usiskin Family has been connected with the company for 85 years, Michael Usiskin points out that the company – originally catering to the horse trade – was actually founded in 1930 in Winkler by the eponymous Warkov brothers – Jacob, Mendel and Morris – and their brother-in-law, Barney Safeer.  Larry Usiskin, father of Michael and his brother and partner, Arnie, went to work for the company in 1939, four years after the partners moved the business to Winnipeg (to a location at Selkirk and Main).
The late Larry Usiskin and his late wife, Roz, were leaders in Winnipeg’s secular Yiddishist community.  The Usiskin brothers received their elementary schooling at the secular Sholem Aleichem School at the corner of Pritchard and Salter in the old North End.
“Our dad was maybe 16 or 17 when he went to work for Warkov-Safeer in 1939,” Michael Usiskin notes.  “He would do deliveries on his bike to shoe repair shops.”
He never left.
Michael Usiskin relates that, during the war years, the company relocated to larger premises at King and Bannatyne to accommodate a growing demand for its expanding product lines.
Larry Usiskin bought the business in 1969 – with a partner – in 1969.  It was not a given that either Michael or Arnie would join the family endeavour.  Michael was the first of the brothers to come on board. That was in 1984.
Michael had been working for Videon Public Access TV for the previous seven years.  “I was a producer, editor and camera man,” he recalls. 
Among the programs he worked on were Noach Witman’s Jewish television hour and such classics as “Math with Marty”  and Natalie and Ronne Pollock’s show.
“Dad began talking about retirement,” Michael recounts.   “With budget cuts and lay-offs coming to Videon, it was a good time for me to get out and join Dad in business.”
Michael became Warkov-Safeer’s managing partner in 1995 on the senior Usiskin’s retirement.  Arnie joined his brother in partnership in 1998.
“I had been working for CBC for 17 years as a technician,” Arnie relates.  “A confluence of events presented me with the opportunity to go into the family business.”
Although Arnie bought out Michael’s previous partner,  he continued on at CBC for another four years before accepting a buyout. 
“I went from show business into shoe business,” he jokes.
Today, Warkov-Safeer has customers from Ontario to the West Coast. “Things have changed considerably over the years for our business,” Michael notes. “Our shoe market is now solely more expensive brands. And we also supply a lot of leather and leather-related products for hobbyists.”
He reports that a lot of their marketing has long been done by word of mouth.  “We used to go to a fair number of trade shows, but not so much anymore,” he adds.  “We now have a number of sales representatives throughout Western Canada and Ontario.”
“We’re not high tech,” Arnie points out.  “We have a niche market.  What we sell is a form of recycling – allowing people to look after and fix their shoes.  We see a trend developing in this area.”
While Arnie and Michael Usiskin have no plans to retire quite yet,  they do acknowledge though they are not getting any younger and would welcome someone younger to come into the business who might be willing one day to lead Warkov-Safeer into the future. 

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Winnipeg-based singer/songwriter Orit Shimoni spreading her wings again after being grounded by Covid lockdown

By MYRON LOVE In the spring of 2020, Canadian-Israeli singer/songwriter Orit Shimoni was in the midst of a cross Canada tour. She had started in Vancouver, had a show in Edmonton and stepped off the train in Winnipeg just as the Covid  lockdowns were underway.  Shimoni was essentially stuck In our city, knowing virtually on one.
Four years later, she is still here, having found a supportive community and, while she has resumed touring, she has decided for now to make Winnipeg her home base.
“I really appreciate the artistic scene here,” she says.  “I plan on being away on tour a lot, but I have understanding and rent is affordable.”
Our community also benefits from having such a multi-talented individual such as Shimoni living among us.  Over the past 15 years, the former teacher – with a Masters degree in Theology, has toured worldwide as well as producing 12 albums of original works to date – the most recent being “Winnipeg”, a series of commentaries on her life experiences, wishes and dreams over the past couple of years – which was released last fall.
She has also produced an album of songs for Chanukah.
According to her website, Shimoni expounds on her “truths, her feelings and tells her stories” in venues that include bars, clubs and cafes, coffee houses and folkfests, theatres, back yards, living rooms, and trains.  Her music is described as a potpourri of “bold and raw, soft and tender, witty and humourous,” incorporating  empathy and condemnation, spirituality and whimsy,” and crosses different genres such as blues, folk and country and “speaks to the human condition, the human heart and the times  that we find ourselves in”.
She observes that the inspiration for her songs can come from anywhere, including conversations with others, nature, history, news and her own lived experiences.
In response to the ongoing situation in Israel today, she reports that she is trying to use her music to create positive energy in trying to foster a commonality between people.

Red Door Painting by Orit Shimoni

In addition to adding to her musical corpus while in Winnipeg these past four years, Shimoni notes that she has used her enforced lockdown downtime to explore other ventures. One of those new areas that she has been focusing on is art.
“I have always had an interest in painting,” she says.  While she hasn’t had an exhibition of her painting yet, she has prints for sale and is available for commissions.
“My last two albums have my paintings as the cover art,” she points out.
Another area that the singer/songwriter has been developing over the past four years is writing and performing personalized songs for special occasions.  “I can bring to birthdays, weddings and memorials personalized songs to mark the occasion,” she notes.  “It is another way that I have diversified what I can offer.”
One project she completed last year – with support from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba – was “singing the songs of our elders” in which she interviewed several Jewish seniors – with the help of Gray Academy students – and told their stories in song. 
Among other performances she has given locally over the past year was a special appearance before a group of Holocaust survivors at the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre, a self-written, one woman show – called “The Wandering Jew” at Tarbut in November and, most recently, a concert last month at Gordie’s Coffee House on Sterling Lyon Parkway.
Another new area of exploration for Shimoni is animation.  In an interview with Roots Music Canada last fall, she embarked on an ambitious animation project based on her song “One Voice,” which she wrote a few years ago, and which perfectly reflects the anxiety that many people are feeling in these troubled times.
 Last October, she was back on tour – with renowned American songwriter Dan Bern  – after three years away from the road.  She did two weeks’ worth of concerts in American West Coast states and Colorado  – and. in late January, she began a month-long journey that started with shows in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal and stops throughout the Midwest as far as Texas.
She recently returned to Montreal for a show and is currently doing a series of concerts in Germany – with further stops in Belgium, Holland and England.
“It will be good to be back in Europe,” she says.  “I have developed a loyal following in Germany and elsewhere.”
A writer for one publication in Berlin described Shimoni as ‘one of the most interesting singer/songwriters I have met in a long time.”
Here at home, Winnipeg concert promoter Ian Mattey observes that “with each concert, her audience has grown – a testament to the wonderful balance of her lyrical genius, haunting voice and musical talent.”
The singer/songwriter feels grounded – in a good way – in our fair city – and we hope that she will be with us for some time to come.

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A Backwards Family Tree

author Janice Weizman/cover of "Our Little Histories"

The following review first appeared in the February 15, 2024 issue of Lilith Magazine Reprinted with permission.
What does Jennifer Greenberg-Wu, an American-Jewish museum curator working on a reality show in rural Belarus, have to do with Raizel Shulman, a Russian mother desperate to save her triplet sons from being drafted into the czar’s army? The answer spans three continents and nearly two centuries, and it is the spellbinding tale that Janice Weizman weaves in Our Little Histories (Toby Press, $17.95), a novel that unfolds back-wards to tell the story of a family’s history one generation at a time.
Each of the book’s seven chapters focuses on another branch of the family tree that connects Jennifer back to Raizel. We witness the encounter between Jennifer’s mother Nancy Wexler, a young feminist hippie from Chicago, and her distant cousin Yardena, 25 years old and happily pregnant in Tel Aviv in 1968. In the next chapter we meet Yardena’s mother, Tamar, who, while smuggling guns for the Haga- nah, engages in a fateful act of betrayal with a visitor to her home on Kibbutz Hadar, where she has made her home ever since her parents sent her off on a train from Minsk in 1927. In the next chapter we meet Tamar’s distant cousin, Gabriel Schulman, a literature teacher in Vilna, who is attacked in a dark alley in Tamar’s impassioned letters pleading with him to come to Palestine before the situation in Europe gets worse for the Jews. “To be a Jew in Vilna, or Poland, or perhaps anywhere, is to find courage where you thought you had none, to feel it flowing through your veins like blood,” Gabriel thinks in the seconds before he is attacked.
Set one year earlier but thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, the following chapter focuses on a third branch of the family—not those who stayed in Europe or settled in Palestine, but those like Nat Wexler, a first-generation American journalist in Chicago who is also Tamar and Gabriel’s cousin. Nat understands Yiddish but cannot speak it, and prides himself in his assimilation into American culture; he dreads bringing his fashionable, light-hearted Jewish-American girlfriend to the Yiddish theater with his mother, who is eager to meet her. The penultimate chapter takes us back forty years earlier to turn-of-the-century Belarus, where Gabriel’s father Yoyna is sent on a mission by his own father to reunite with his father’s two brothers; all three brothers were separated at a young age. In the book’s compelling, heart-wrenching final chapter, we meet three triplet boys, one of whom is Yoyna’s father, and we learn the reasons for their tragic separation by their mother Raizel in the shtetl in 1850, where “every year, right around the short dark days leading up to Hanukkah, the boys of Propoisk become scarce…gone for weeks or even months at a time.”
Like A .B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, which follows a Sephardi family back in time, Our Little Histories is a book that demands re-rereading, backwards, from the last chapter back to the first. Connecting threads link one generation to another, and serve as leitmotifs through out the book, like the poem in three stanzas that Raizel Schulman pens just before she parts from two of her triplets so as to spare them from the czar’s army; each son receives one stanza, and the poem is published in a 1914 Yiddish anthology which Yoyna gives to Gabriel, who mails it to Tamar, who donates the slim booklet to the Yiddish library in Tel Aviv, where Yardena and Nancy find it; Nancy will give that booklet to Jennifer to take with her to Belarus for her reality show. When Jennifer’s mother hands her that booklet, she is convinced she has seen it before, and her deja-vu mirrors that of the reader, who will encounter and re-encounter the anthology, and Raizel’s poem, in each of the book’s seven chapters.
Our Little Histories is masterfully constructed, such that the book’s final chapter is both inevitable—it couldn’t possibly have been any other way—and yet impossible to predict. The three branches of Raizel’s family, who make their homes in Europe, Israel, and America, offer us an intimate window into aspects of Ashke- nazi Jewish history—pogroms and Zionism, yeshiva culture and the assimilation, the kibbutz and the shtetl. We have all tragically witnessed how the legacy of persecution has reverberated even in the Jew- ish homeland, a reminder of the unbear- able sacrifices and the acts of raw courage that continue to forge us as a people.

Our Little Histories is available in paperback and kindle on Amazon.

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