With decades of environmental devastation and human rights violations, palm oil has been under the scrutiny of environmentalists, NGOs, and consumers for quite a while. Certifying bodies like the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO), and more recently the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), have tried to certify the sustainability of palm and palm kernel oils. Unfortunately, lax rules, weak enforcement and domination by commercial interests have served to weaken the effectiveness of these organizations.
There are many campaigns advocating for the boycott of palm oil. Some arguments against this idea are negative impacts to the economies of producer countries (namely, Indonesia and Malaysia), negative impacts on the poor of these countries, loss of the most efficient (from a production standpoint) vegetable oil, inability to supply growing populations with food and cattle feed. The counter to these arguments are plentiful and well documented over a period of years. So, what’s the answer?
“No-deforestation” pledges have become the latest trend by consumer goods brands who are responding to their lack of confidence in certifying bodies. A No-deforestation pledge made by downstream users seems hardly practical when no one has asked the growers of oil palm what is needed to implement this new policy. Many growers may feel this pledge only prevents impoverished groups from lifting themselves out of poverty. Others think phrases like “no-deforestation” are just marketing language with little meaning. Palm fruit bunches can change hands many times before arriving at the mill. This makes it impossible to claim that palm oil is deforestation-free.
Maybe pushing the third world to comply with first world ideals isn’t realistic. What if we call for end users to take a more active role in fixing the problems that we’ve been lamenting for the last 20+ years? Global brands like Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, Nestle, L’Oreal, Cargill who have benefitted from the low cost and abundant supply of palm oil could adopt forests or nature preserves and take responsibility for the protection of that area. Let’s look at protected forests and wildlife preserves. A typical problem is that protected forests are done so in name only. These areas are not physically protected. It is not uncommon to discover fires, illegal logging or hunting in these areas. Corporations could provide funding to pay for forest patrols or fire departments. Forest could also be protected by the presence of research groups. Corporations could fund those research groups whose presence in the forest is generally enough to deter illegal logging or hunting. Money made from ecotourism could be shared with neighboring villagers. If maintaining the forest is seen as a source of income, it will be too valuable to destroy.