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Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil: future fact or farce?

The year 2013 was a pretty good one for the last remaining patches of old forests in the world. Monstrous, forest-chomping companies like Asia Pulp and Paper and their relatives in the palm oil industry, Golden Agri Resources, both made pledges to adopt zero deforestation policies in their work. Even Wilmar Group, previously criticised widely...

The year 2013 was a pretty good one for the last remaining patches of old forests in the world.

Monstrous, forest-chomping companies like Asia Pulp and Paper and their relatives in the palm oil industry, Golden Agri Resources, both made pledges to adopt zero deforestation policies in their work. Even Wilmar Group, previously criticised widely as the worst corporation for transparency, made a similar pledge, as all three companies signed up with The Forest Trust to improve their approach to sustainable environmental management.

Photo courtesy of Caroline Braker.
Photo courtesy of Caroline Braker.

That’s what made 2013 a good year for forests, but it begs the question, what are the members of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) waiting for? If these three multi-nationals can pledge to not remove important forests that are such a vital part of humanity’s well being, what is holding back the stakeholders in CGF from making the same commitment right now?

According to their own website, the CGF reads is:

“… a global, parity-based industry network, driven by its members. It brings together the CEOs and senior management of over 400 retailers, manufacturers, service providers and other stakeholders across 70 countries and reflects the diversity of the industry in geography, size, product category and format. Forum member companies have combined sales of EUR 2.5 trillion. Their retailer and manufacturer members directly employ nearly 10 million people with a further 90 million related jobs estimated along the value chain.”

If we could add that EUR 2.5 trillion to this $270 billion incentive that is being offered by institutional investors across the globe to companies that have anything to do with palm oil, that would be one awesome tool that could stop the chainsaws today. In 2014.

Unfortunately, that is not going to happen. While that $270 billion incentive is active and in place to reward or punish companies that have anything to do with unsustainable palm oil, the Consumer Goods Forum, through its members, are pledging to halt net deforestation not until the year 2020, which could be too late.

It is easy to see how they could potentially have zero-net-deforestation products on market shelves by 2020. If you look at historical data on the loss of forest coverage, like this one from Earth Policy Institute, there simply won’t be any forests left to deforest by then.

What disturbs me most, though, is that the pledge to use 2020 as the cut-off year for deforestation-free consumer products has been picked up by palm oil producing countries like Indonesia. Dissatisfied with membership of the globally accepted certification scheme for palm oil known as the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Indonesian Palm Oil Association quit the organization to form their own scheme for sustainable palm oil under the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO).

On the surface, the ISPO looks really good. Where the RSPO failed to make big impacts in the protection of key forests in Indonesia due to the fact that many Indonesian producers of palm oil are not members, the ISPO has said it will make all its standards, its Principles and Criteria, mandatory to all producers of palm oil in the country. But all of this only by 2020.

We’re only in early 2014, and already the claims of land grabs by palm oil and timber plantations in Indonesia are echoing through local Indonesian media. With only seven working years left to the year 2020, I fully expect a mad rush by companies to work pell-mell to cut down whatever forests they have been awarded regardless of human rights, extinctions of wildlife, or greenhouse gas emissions. I bring you one fine example of this today.

Photo courtesy of Robert Hii.
Photo courtesy of Robert Hii.

Local communities in Sulawesi, Indonesia, are going through a typical situation that has played out many times over at the hands of large corporations. Not only do they stand to lose their livelihoods planting rice or rubber, but they stand to lose the rights to their own land through nefarious purchasing practices or outright disregard for the law. Big Agriculture buys up the land and then requires the former residents, owners, and workers—who often have no other place to go—to remain tied to the plantations. Their children will then be born into debt to the same companies that promised them wealth and development.

Our challenge to the ISPO should be to implement with immediate effect a complaints system whereby allegations of land grabs or removal of high conservation values can be noted even as the ISPO works toward certifying palm oil producers in Indonesia. Failure to do so could permanently challenge the credibility of ISPO if they choose to certify plantations with a history of social and environmental injustices.

China and India are the biggest buyers of palm oil, and why should they listen to us? There are a couple of reasons. Aggressive campaigns by Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network to stop unsustainable palm oil growth have had an effect on the likes of Kellogg or Unilever. These brands felt the pressure from movement such as this one that Voices for Biodiversity has helped perpetuate, and these companies are working in the background to make sure no forests fall or human rights trampled for the sake of products they sell us.

Unfortunately, palm oil companies have seen the future in eco-friendly fuels or biofuels and what American companies will do to produce it. While we may rage against the deforestation caused by new palm oil plantations, they know that when we see the millions of hectares of forests being cut down in the Americas to feed biomass energy production like Drax in the United Kingdom, we will quickly forget the devastation in Borneo or Sumatra and simply beg to save our own forests in the West.

And why should we care about what some palm oil companies are doing in Indonesia? If saving cute orangutans or social justice doesn’t make you get up and go, hopefully climate change will.

According to The Conversation, “Indonesia’s peatlands hold at least 57 billion gigatonnes (Gigatonnes or Gt) of carbon, making them a globally significant terrestrial carbon pool.” The Union of Concerned Scientists has long warned about green house gas emissions from palm oil cultivation and is urging companies to adopt strong policies on peat free sourcing.

Without governance over the millions of hectares that could potentially open up in Indonesia between now and 2020, we could likely see the time bomb go off and contribute to many more dire situations like the one California is in now. We simply cannot afford to ignore significant contributors to global warming and climate change, especially one of this magnitude.

Getting the ISPO to set up a complaints system today might not stop the destruction of high conservation value forests or protect human rights, but if the system is in place, it will, at the very least, give us a chance to gauge whether ISPO certification will be fact or farce.

Photos are copyright protected and may not be reproduced without permission. 

— Robert Hii, Sustainable Business Consultant

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Meet the Author

Voices for Biodiversity
Voices for Biodiversity (V4B) is an online conservation media magazine that shares the stories of people from around the globe in order to help all species survive and thrive together. The e-zine is a gathering place for those who believe that humanity’s health and well-being depend upon the health and well-being of other species and the ecosystems that support us all. Voices for Biodiversity shares the stories of eco-reporters from around the world, using the ancient human art of storytelling to connect people with each other, other species, and the natural world. The magazine’s goal is to alter human behavior in such a way as to connect the human animal with the global ecosystem in order to stem biodiversity loss and arrest the sixth extinction of species taking place in this time, the Age of the Anthropocene.