Can palm oil ever be sustainable?

Once hailed as a healthy alternative to trans-fats, as a green wonder-fuel and as a driver of South-East Asia’s economic prosperity, palm oil’s image has taken quite a beating recently.

Now seen as a biofuel baddie — palm oil biodiesel generates 10 times more carbon dioxide than petrol — it is also blamed for deforestation and for driving species such as the orangutan to the verge of extinction.

But even if you don’t use biofuels you have probably used palm oil several times today without even knowing it. Palm oil is in a vast range of consumer products, from margarine to washing powder, and is probably in your favourite ice-cream, coffee creamer or even your lipstick. You might not be aware of this because many manufacturers simply call it “vegetable oil” on the label, often to try to avoid the stigma that has become attached to palm oil.

Campaigns by groups such as Friends of the Earth in the United Kingdom and Europe saw consumer boycotts of products containing palm oil forcing retail giants to put pressure on producers to prove that their product is sustainable and eco-friendly.

Green labelling

So the palm oil industry, environmental groups and corporate palm oil consumers, such as Unilever, signed up for the round table on sustainable palm oil (RSPO), a green-labelling certification process for palm oil produced in line with environmental best-practice criteria. But instead of taking some of the heat out of the battle, the RSPO seems destined to become another source of conflict.

The various parties to the RSPO seem to agree on very little. A fresh row erupted earlier this year when Britain’s advertising standards authority upheld a complaint by Friends of the Earth and ruled that a Malaysian Palm Oil Council advert was misleading. The ad claims that oil palm plantations are essentially “planted forest”, absorbing carbon dioxide and creating biodiverse habitats for fauna and flora, and that Malaysian palm oil has been sustainably produced since 1917.

The palm oil industry was infuriated and Malaysia’s minister of plantations and commodities, Peter Chin, accused Western NGOs such as Friends of the Earth of “bias against palm oil” and expressed deep concern about “the negative campaigns targeting the palm oil industry”.

Sarala Aikanathan, director of Wetlands International Malaysia, says: “You need to call a spade a spade and a plantation a plantation. A plantation is not a planted forest– it is monoculture and does not contain the biodiversity of a natural forest.” But she points out that there is a need to balance conservation and development. “I’m not a believer in pure conservation — it just doesn’t work if the local people suffer.”

The timelines for implementation of RSPO criteria are unclear: environmental groups want strict deadlines for compliance, while the palm oil industry sees these criteria as a longer-term goal: “We will work towards them but it doesn’t mean we will have to comply with this next year,” Chin said at a conference on sustainable palm oil in April. He pointed out that 40% of Malaysia’s oil palm is planted by smallholders who “need to be educated about RSPO principles”.


But environmental groups say the planet simply doesn’t have that much time: “All this talk of sustainability is lies,” says Hardi Baktiantoro of the Centre for Orangutan Protection, an Indonesian NGO. He dismissed expert predictions that the orangutans will become extinct in 10 years. saying “I think it will be in the next year or two. It’s a crime,” he says.

A Greenpeace report, How Unilever Palm Oil Suppliers Are Burning up Borneo, released last week finds that RSPO members are expanding their plantations into forests and peatlands in Kalimantan — the Indonesian part of Borneo — in breach of both the law and RSPO principles. Greenpeace’s Tim Birch dismissed the RSPO as a green-washing exercise: “Five years on and there isn’t one drop of sustainable palm oil on the market. They talk about sustainability, but the destruction continues. There is no sense of urgency. By the time we achieve sustainability there will be nothing to be sustainable about.”

‘Western hypocrisy’

There is a view in the palm oil industry that Europe, having developed its economy and destroyed its own forests in the process, is now being hypocritical in wanting to dictate terms to emerging economies. But environmental activists say that they don’t care what Europe has done; they want to preserve their own ecological heritage. “The wildlife that is affected is ours, not Europe’s,” says Darrel Webber of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Malaysia. “We have the right to develop, but what about local rights to clean water and to fish?” A recent WWF study found that effluent from palm oil mills and chemical and fertiliser run-offs enter rivers on which local communities depend and there is a high concentration of heavy metals, particularly lead, in the fish.

Who benefits?

In Malaysia palm oil companies are credited with building roads, schools and clinics for their employees. But Baktiantoro, who works with communities in Indonesia’s forests, says: “Economic development for who? Companies or local people? It is often difficult for the community to access water – one tree drinks 100 litres of ground water each day. The government might be getting tax from palm oil but the local people get nothing.”

Malaysian palm oil producers say they aren’t destroying virgin forest, as most of the land converted to oil palm plantation used to be agricultural land used for rice or rubber production. Environmental campaigners say most flagship species, such as orangutans, already live in degraded or secondary forest areas and fear that this conversion will destroy even that habitat. They say that while Malaysia might not be destroying any more virgin rainforest, there is a huge expansion of oil palm in Kalimantan and that much of this is driven by Malaysian-owned companies, such as Sime Darby, the world’s largest oil palm plantation company.

While Greenpeace is calling for a moratorium on oil palm expansion into rainforest and peatland areas, Malaysian NGOs are wary of setting themselves up as opponents of palm oil. Webber says that in fairness to the industry “it is the only commodity trying to achieve sustainability standards”. The WWF will continue to work with plantation owners to achieve solutions, particularly through planned biodiversity “corridors of life”. These corridors will link coastal mangrove swamps with upland forest reserves, allowing wildlife to move freely and remove bottlenecks caused by drainage canals and electric fences on plantations (orangutans are notoriously afraid of crossing water). It will also reduce conflicts between animals and humans, caused by the fact that “elephants can’t read maps and orangutans can’t fly”.

View the photo gallery.

Nicole Johnston attended the international palm oil sustainability conference as a guest of the MPOC.

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