The Palm Scribe

Palm Oil Sustainability: Whose Business Is It?

Environmentalists and lately the European Commission have been relentless in attacking the palm oil industry in Indonesia for its alleged lack of sustainability – which covers a glossary of wrongs such as deforestation, planting on peat, exploitation of labor, displacing local communities and destroying some wildlife habitats.

What does Indonesia do? It usually denies the charges. Or it lashes out at its critics with threats, allegations of conspiracies, colonial attitudes or double standards.

Result: In the former instance it looks defensive; in the latter, it looks aggressive. Both instances do Indonesia and the palm oil industry no favors, especially to a global audience.

What Indonesia and its palm oil players should do instead is to change the narrative of palm oil worldwide.

If anything, the Indonesian palm oil industry, especially its corporate sector, can boast of having made huge strides toward sustainability.  Although there are still many shortcomings, no other industry has seen such drastic changes in mindset in just over a decade.

Palm oil’s worst years are in the 1980s to the early 1990s when, like an irresponsible teenager given carte blanche access to resources, it went on a wild romp of expansion and deforestation.

That teenager has since grown up to be a responsible adult. Sustainability has now reached boardrooms and is seeping down to the fields. Its players are aware that palm oil is now one of the most scrutinized industries in the world and have responded with high reporting standards, public-accessible green dashboards, and audits by qualified environmentalists.

By law, planters in Indonesia have to be compliant to the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) standard. Most of the larger planter also abide by the standards of the much more internationally-recognized Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). In contrast, cultivation of soya bean that takes up to seven times the area to produce an equivalent amount of palm oil – and is now the main driver of deforestation in South America — does not need any sustainability certification.

Indonesian palm oil companies today not only have sustainable practices, the technology available today in the form of satellite imaging, LIDAR and drone photography put them under global scrutiny but also allow them to demonstrate their sustainability or to disprove allegations.

Granted, Indonesia‘s oil palm smallholders, who now account for about 40 percent of the commodity’s national output, have not yet joined the sustainability bandwagon, but efforts are being made to help them do so. The government is trying to boost their productivity while also addressing their main challenges. Certifications bodies are adjusting their criteria to raise inclusivity and other stakeholders are addressing ways to enable smallholders to implement good agricultural practices.

So with all of this going for the Indonesian palm oil industry, why does it time and again fall into the trap of being defensive or aggressive when faced with criticisms?

A likely explanation is that although the Indonesian palm oil players make a show of their sustainable practices, deep down the point-of-view that governs their words and deeds is that sustainability is a yoke imposed on them by others.

It is something that they might not really believe in but is forced to do. Or they may not fully grasp its cause and effect. Hence, their inability to reframe the worldwide narratives from the sustainability they fail to do instead of the great strides they have made in sustainability.

Unless we believe that sustainability is beneficial, if not crucial, to our own future, it would only remain a mere jargon, a dress to keep up appearances. If we want to strive for sustainability, it should be based on the conviction that it is in our own interest and not that of others.

The power of a point-of-view cannot be underestimated as it informs all our words and deeds. Perhaps the Indonesian palm oil industry would do well to take a breather from all that huffing and puffing defending or scolding its detractors and instead engage in introspection of what really drives it forward?



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