For Hans Nicholas Jong, environmental issues are part of his daily fare. Working for Mongabay.com, a media focused on environmental issues, Jong has had to interacts with various people who cares for the environment, including activists, researchers, bureaucrats and corporate executives and this has further piqued his interest in dissecting the complexity of environmental issues in Indonesia as well as in other countries.

Hans Nicholas Jong, working for Mongabay as staff writer.

The Jakarta-born Jong who studied at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, in Beppu, Japan, worked as a journalist with the English-language daily The Jakarta Post for five years before joining Mongabay in mid 2017.

Despite experience in reporting on diverse subjects, from economy to elections, he finally found his niche in environmental reporting.

“I feel that environmental issues are more challenging,” Jong said during a recent conversation with The Palm Scribe.

Environmental issues are sexy in the eyes of environmental media such as Mongabay, he said, Environmental issue talks about wilderness, including its fauna. Conservation efforts on orangutans or other threatened species, according to Jong, can easily move people, and therefore becomes a popular topic to write about.

However, Jong deemed that issues in the palm oil industry are rarely discussed in environmental media, primarily because it is much more difficult to get news on palm oil. “For example, if we want to know about the development in ISPO, and then ask the government about this, the replay would be that there is yet no development, If we want to know about the draft law on palm oil, we ask the People’s Representatives Council (DPR) and there is yet nothing. Palm Oil is only being heatedly discussed when forest and ground fires are erupting,” Jong said,

The difficulties in getting information on palm oil from the stakeholders, as Jong is saying, is making the palm oil industry seen more often from the media perspective, usual in a negative way. Environmental media deem palm oil as a commodity that is not environment-friendly, is linked to deforestation and threatens the survival of animals, especially orangutans. “So far, during my reporting, I have only heard bad things on palm oil, There has not been one company with a good reputation,” Jong said.

This situation of course, is disadvantageous for the palm oil industry. Even though there are many positive stories behind a commodity that is contributing the most foreign exchange for Indonesia. Stories of farmers, smallholders who becomes more prosperous because of palm oil, rarely make it into the media on the environment. And there are more than two million smallholders managing some 4.7 million hectares of palm oil plantation, or at least 41 percent of the country’s total. Good news from palm oil companies that develop innovations, boost productivity and engage in sustainable practices in the palm oil sector, very rarely appear in environmental media.

The lack of information on palm oil also often trigger misunderstandings. In November, for example, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines asked all its suppliers to avoid product containing palm oil on health reasons. The Dutch airlines obliged its suppliers to get RSPO certification if they wanted to continue to supply the firm and as a mark of their support for sustainability.

This airlines’ statement prompted the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC) to sent it a protest letter. The letter of the organization that has Indonesia and Malaysia as members, said that it deemed the Dutch company to have the wrong information and of being discriminative against palm oil.

RSPO data showed that up to November 30, 2017, there were 10 groups of independent farmers which had obtained RSPO certification. They were in Riau, Jambi, Central Kalimantan, and North and South Sumatra. In Indonesia RSPO certified palm oil plantations covered 1,719,606 hectares. This figure is much higher than in Malaysia, Latin America or in any other country. There are also more than 100 palm oil companies in Indonesia with RSPO certification.

Jong does not deny that the palm oil industry was rising in popularity. “Palm oil is being touted by the government as its top commodity,” Jong said Government support for the commodity is getting stronger and its officials are out campaigning to protect palm oil from foreign intervention, including from Europe. “We are also saying the leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia united so that palm oil is not being hindered.”

Jong even deemed that in general there was progress in the palm oil industry drive towards sustainability. There is not the ISPO certification which is now obligatory for producers. “However, there are still worries that the draft law on palm oil is stressing the economic aspect more than the environment. And ISPO is also deemed to be weaker compared to RSPO,” he said.

It is this environmental concerns surrounding palm oil which has prompted the European Parliament to issue a resolution entitled Palm Oil and Deforestation of the Rainforests in April 2017. This resolution cited the palm oil industry as the main cause for deforestation and climate change. It also proposed that palm oil, of which Indonesia is the world’s largest producer, be excluded from raw material for the European Union’s biodiesel program by 2020.

Of course, stakeholders in the palm oil industry, object to that resolution, saying that deforestation should not be solely blamed on the management of palm oil plantations. As the world’s largest palm oil producers, Indonesia sees the resolution of the European parliament as running against European Union’s fair trade principle. President Joko Widodo is pushing for the European Union to drop its discriminative stance.

Jong said that as an advance and rich community, it was only fair for the European Union to demand sustainability from Indonesian palm oil. Consumers in Europe no longer only look at the matter of pricing, whether they are cheap or expensive, but also look at the origin of the goods, where they come from and how were they produced. “We are not yet fully capable to meet the demands of the European Union in ascertaining that Indonesian palm oil products are  really sustainable, up to the level of the suppliers, something that involves a long chain of trade,” Jong said.

When he was told that many players in the palm oil industry already held RSPO and ISPO certifications, Jong remained skeptical. “If there are palm oil companies in Indonesia which are committed to sustainability, I am doubting their ability to ascertain that their products are sustainable. Because there are many cases they miss,” he said.

He cited the case of continuing conflicts between suppliers and local communities. Not all big companies check on their commitment to sustainability at their downstream industry. “And because they are unable to meet the demands of the European Union, Indonesian palm oil players become on the defensive,” Jong said,

This defensive stance is actually a response from the palm oil industry that feels it is the victim of discrimination. Only palm oil is under the obligation to be certified, while other vegetable oil crops are not.

Jong said that if there were indeed discrimination and imbalances, this would also not mean that palm oil can exist without sustainability, “We do acknowledge that there are problems in other vegetable oil producers, but this does not mean that the palm oil problem be neutralized just because other vegetable oil crops have problems,” he said.

“Palm oil must continue to be responsible environmentally. Palm oil is indeed the most productive and efficient source of vegetable oil compared to other crops, but it is also the one with the most problems,” he said.

Jong said that one of the major problems facing palm oil is the high rate of its plantation expansion. However, when he was told that the total surface planted with palm oil in the entire world just stood at around one percent of the total land planted for vegetable oils, he quickly said that “I need to check this, I must have a look at this first.”

Jong also deemed that sentiments against palm oil were not part of a black campaign against the crop, “All started with forest and ground fires that had their beginning in palm oil expansion, Because of the limited land available, palm oil was then planted in peat soil. Oil palm cannot grow in wet ground and peat is basically wet. Willing or not, it must be drained, canals are made to drain the water. Because it became dry, and also because of the unsustainable practices, these are triggering fires,” Jong explained.

Although there are successful palm oil plantations in peat land that have been there for about a century, Jong deemed that the matter was still under debate. “For the Peat Restoration Agency, palm oil cannot be planted in peat land. That is not bargainable because it is simply not good at growing on peat soil. So, other alternatives need to be sought,” he said.

He said that up until now, he cannot yet be convinced that palm oil can be grown on peat soil and still be sustainable. “I heard from researchers, the government, that they already have one voice, that palm oil should not be planted in peat soil. Palm oil is also not a native Indonesian plant, it comes from Africa no?” he said.

The strong prevailing negative sentiments against palm oil, according to Jong, is requiring the palm oil industry to abide by all government rules and regulations, by ISPO. “There are many large companies which claim to take part in ISPO but which do not check on their own supply chain. Their suppliers may not all be in support of sustainability.”

Players in the palm oil industry must comply with the principle of traceability and transparency. Transparency is particularly important because there are too many palm oil company who remain not transparent and this makes verification by the public difficult.

“In the matter of concessions, for example, there are no palm oil company willing to open it to the public, even though the Law on Public Information see that as public data. The people has the right to access those information,” Jong said.

It is this lack of transparency, this opaqueness that is also partly the reasons behind the not so good image of palm oil. This attitude, according to Jong, is not reflecting any good will. “The most fundamental thing is information openness and they cannot yet meet this. Also in the matter of ground and forest fire management and of conflicts with local communities,” he added.

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