Is Sustainable Palm Oil Possible?
It is a well-known among chemical suppliers and users (ie-manufacturers of consumable goods) within the cosmetic and personal care industries that the notion of palm and palm kernel oils as being sustainable is precarious at best. “Sustainable” palm oil garners a higher price on the open market, satisfies eco-conscious consumers, and leaves all involved with the false impression that palm and palm kernel oils can be grown sustainably in the present locations from where they originate. The US market relies on the Round Table of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to certify these oils as being produced in a sustainable manner. The RSPO does so by using third-party auditors who are obliged to follow a list of Principals and Criteria set by the RSPO. These auditors are paid by the plantations and mills they are certifying. This arrangement alone is prone to abuse. There is evidence that auditors will collude with oil palm plantations to disguise the true situation on the ground (EIA, Who Watches the Watchmen, 2015). This collusion allows their “customers” to obtain the desired certification and increases the certifier’s chances of being used again for the next property assessment. This is just one example of many that shows the inadequacy of the RSPO to halt environmental and human rights abuses that have been rampant in this industry for the last two decades.
Indonesia is currently the largest global supplier of palm oil. The Indonesian government sees palm oil as the perfect vehicle to raise its citizens out of poverty and encourages “smallholders” (family farms with typically less than 5 hectares of land) to cultivate oil palm. Today, 40% of palm oil produced in Indonesia comes from “smallholders”. Smallholders are considered “independent” if they are not connected to larger plantations. Those who are connected to plantations are called “plasma” smallholders. Independent smallholders are the largest group of smallholder farms in Indonesia and operate with the least amount of resources available to them (ie-training, funds, high yield seeds).
Oil palm trees begin to decline in productivity in 20 to 30 years. To maintain peak production, the old trees must be removed, new seeds bought, and the soil rehabilitated. Maintaining peak production is an obvious way of minimizing expansion or reducing the encroachment into forested land. If a declining farm is replanted, it will also take 2 to 4 years for the farm to start producing again. The cost of this process can be between $4,200 and $6,600/hectare. Smallholders can get some financial assistance from the RSPO but many say it’s not enough. Sadly, it is easier to clear the forest, sell the timber, burn what remains, and begin a new farm. This process is known as “slash and burn”. A joint study between Colombia and Harvard blame this practice for accelerating the deaths of 100,000 people during the 2015/16 fires. To make matters worse, smallholders tend to trade palm and palm kernel oils back and forth, so it’s impossible to know if palm oil is actually “deforestation-free”, which is a claim that many brands are making today.
The concept of deforestation-free is another example of the first world dictating demands to producer countries without verifying that this is even possible. Topics such as greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, loss of biodiversity are all abstract concepts to many in Indonesia who are simply trying to survive. Those goals may be important to the western world but not everyone else has the same priorities or sees the situation from the same perspective.