A meeting with an old friend from overseas usually leaves me with warm feelings but this time it left me with a host of questions as well.
This friend is active in the environment sector, both in his own country of origin as well as in the country he now resides in. His interest is not only confined to mainstream environmental issues such as haze and forest fires, deforestation and the likes, but also the plight of native communities, and the rights of farmers and other workers.
He asked how I was doing and when I told him I was now working with the Palm Scribe, it sparked a spontaneous jocular reaction from him:
“Ahaa, you now work with Evil?”
It was meant as a joke but I’ve encountered this reaction all too often and, now knowing what I do about palm oil and its issues, this ignited a knee-jerk action in me to dispel the misperceptions about the industry.
I also told him that there was nothing wrong with palm oil if was sustainably produced.
This sparked off a flurry of attacks from my friend. Yes, palm oil may indeed be cultivated sustainably, he said, but this, according to him, was an exception rather than the rule. He quickly followed this up with a string of conditions for sustainable palm oil.
It should not be cultivated in peat, it should not entail opening a forested area, it should have good water and fertilizer management, it should not use dangerous substances, it should be managed transparently, he rattled off. He also added for good measure that, sustainable plantations should not involve child labor, should respect minimum wage standards, including for daily hires, should assure health and education services for workers and their families and should respect the rights of the workers and the native local communities.
And he was only getting warmed up.
I’ve always known this friend as a rather rational person yet there he was, before me getting hot and bothered about palm oil.
I ignored the emotion and tried addressing the rational side of him.
No palm oil on peat soil? If the law says so, then so be it. But there are palm oil plantations on peat soil in Indonesia that are about a century old, are still productive and there is no evidence that the peat soil is emitting more carbon than normal.
He appeared incredulous and to forestall him thinking that I had taken leave of my senses, I gave him the name of the area in North Sumatra where this palm oil plantation is located.
This triggered him to reach for his weapon of choice against fake news and he pulled out his tablet to Google what I said. While he was fact-checking, I went on to explain that a good water management was key to ensuring sustainable cultivation on peatland, and the North Sumatran plantation was proof of this.
He must have found the plantation and its sustainable practice on his tablet because he started to look less flustered. I pressed home my momentary advantage by telling him that most existing concessions, except maybe in eastern Indonesia and especially in Papua, were concessions issued years ago. These concessions were also mostly located in the land already logged clean by wood and plywood companies or illegal loggers. The government, I also pointed out, is now prioritizing the use of neglected land for new plantation concessions.
Not so easily convinced, my friend changed tact and trotted out the argument that palm oil plantations were monocultures that not only deforested wide areas but also threatened the survival of a number of endangered species and were in complete disregard of the well-being of local communities.
My response was that although there were indeed palm oil companies governed by greed, the blame was not to be borne by plantations only. It was the government which issued the concessions and often, because of insufficient data and information, included land of high conservation value or high carbon stocks.
Such land should be conserved rather than developed but existing laws also oblige concession holders to develop their concessions with no exception, and sanctions await those who fail to do so.
Still undeterred, my friend sucked in a breath and looked as if he was ready to go on the attack again so, I quickly came up with several cases of good sustainable practices by plantations.
I told him actual stories about how a plantation, with the cooperation of a neighboring concession holder, managed to obtain the support of the local governor to declare an area of high conservation value as an Essential Economic Zone, a protected ecosystem managed as in conservation forests but that also empowers local communities.
The area, I said, included a bio-corridor that allowed the free movement of orangutan between a national park and a peat forest, both main habitats for the endangered species.
His resistance was being eroded but he was not yet ready to throw in the towel, so he dove straight into his tablet again to fact-check me.
What he found corroborated what I said and he began to adopt a less antagonistic, even conciliatory, attitude. “This kind of thing should be replicated everywhere,” he said as he finished reading about the company’s actions.
From there, our conversation took on a more congenial and collaborative atmosphere even as we discussed issues and developments related to palm oil.
When we finally shook hands to take our leave of each other, he hoped that I would continue informing him of any new and interesting development in the palm oil industry.
As I walked away I felt good. Good because I had caught up with an old friend, but good also because I thought I had managed to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions about palm oil, the crops that yields so much misunderstanding and emotion.
In the midst of all that warm feeling, however, I was also troubled by a host of questions that my conversation with my friend had raised.
How had such vital information about such an important crop as palm oil escaped his attention? How come examples of good practices in palm oil do not get the attention they deserve? Why is it that only bad or negative things are heard when palm oil is mentioned?
The answers may rest on the hands of the palm oil industry itself. So far, the industry appears to remain trapped in the trauma from years of being the target of bullying attacks and criticism. Blamed as the main culprit behind everything from environmental destruction, deforestation, extinction of species, slavery and other human rights violations to caving into greed and economic gains at the cost of sustainability.
A trauma that has made the industry not only allergic to questions, wherever they came from but had also cocooned it, insulating it from the need to open up and express itself.
The result is that the only din heard about the industry are accusations and other negative noises amid the relative silence from the palm oil industry. And the industry generally reacts to this din with silence or defensiveness.
It may now be time for our palm oil industry to realize the importance of good communication. The importance for the industry to tell its own narratives. True ones based on solid facts and include both stories of successes and failures.
This may sound difficult, but without a proper narrative from the industry itself, the noise that is heard will always be negative.
Maybe it is now the time for the palm oil industry to come out of its shell and end the silence that has long shackled it.