This strong demand, however, has fueled a rapid expansion of palm oil cultivations in the past few decades, way faster than other oil-producing crops. It is this unbridled expansion that has given rise to the many accusations leveled against the palm oil industry. Most salient is the accusation that the cultivation of palm oil is behind the rapidly dwindling rainforest coverage in tropical countries. Beside these forests being felled to make way for palm, the slash-and-burn land clearing practices often used, has also led to the release of substantial greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Palm oil. These two words have given rise to instant polemic and debate that have split normally reasonable people into fierce opposing poles.
But why does this oil-yielding fruit elicit such strong responses that it is difficult to have an informed and reasoned discussion about the place this commodity has in our lives?
Here, take a look behind the myths and facts that make Palm Oil such a polarising factor in our modern lives.
Palm oil has become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. It can be found in the majority of consumer goods and food we use or consume. And because of its wide use and efficient production, demand for palm oil has remained strong if not stronger.
Indeed, there are many clear cases warranting criticism in the production of palm oil. It is estimated that in the first decade of the new millennium, about half of the deforestation that took place in Indonesia, the world’s top palm oil producer and consumer which accounts for about half of the world palm oil supply, was attributable to palm oil.
Between 1990 and 2005, Indonesia lost 24.10 percent of its forest cover, or around 28,072,000 hectares forest according to data quoted by Mongabay. The same source also showed that between 2000 and 2005, the annual rate of forest change increased by 19.1 percent to 1.91 percent.
But things have since improved and the deforestation rate in Indonesia has appeared to be slowing down. Yes, deforestation was still happening, with unscrupulous business, as well as smallholders, continuing to open forests despite a government moratorium on new palm oil concession. But it is no longer happening at the scale it used to be.
The World Resources Institute said in a report in August 2018 that in 2017, Indonesia saw an encouraging sign with a 60 percent drop in tree cover loss in primary forests compared with 2016. The same report said that Kalimantan and Sumatra, the two main palm oil producing islands, experienced the largest reduction in primary forest loss between 2016 and 2017 by 68 percent and 51 percent respectively.
Instead of a blanket accusation against the entire industry, there may be more to gain by building up a more effective monitoring and alert system at the grassroots level, that could flag deforestation, or even the granting of new concessions, especially when it overlaps with high conservation value areas or high carbon stock areas. This network could also flag forest and ground fires early on.
Deforestation, especially rainforest destruction, has been widely illustrated using an animal species that is closely related to humans, The orangutans have been used to dramatize the disastrous consequences of forest destruction on biodiversity, especially since it was to give way to the monoculture that is palm oil plantation. But much less spotlighted are the various endeavors, direct or indirect, by palm oil companies to safeguard HCV and HCS areas, to shelter, re-educate and release orangutans back into the wild.
Destruction of the rainforest also releases large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Indonesia’s emissions total three billion tonnes per year, making it the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases; only the United States and China emit more. According to Climate Transparency earlier this year, by 2016, Indonesia’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have more than doubled since 1990, a steep increase that projections say will continue until 2030.
Climate Transparency also said that emissions from land use, land-use change, and forestry vary widely and up until 2012, have been higher than emissions from all other sources combined. Indonesia’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are indeed rising, but it must also be said that it rose from a very low level. CO2 per capita emissions are increasing, but at 1.7 tCO2/capita in 2013, are still well below the G20 average. The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI, operated by Germanwatch and Climate Action Network Europe) evaluates Indonesia’s emissions level as relatively good, but with a negative trend.
Another accusation leveled against the Indonesian palm oil industry is the continuing human rights violations on plantations. The accusations vary, ranging from poor working conditions, inadequate health and safety protection, gender discrimination in work and pay, child labor, land conflicts, and other injustices. According to the Indonesian human rights commission, Komnas HAM, around 30 percent of some 5,000 violations of human rights that were reported in Indonesia in 2010 were connected with the cultivation of palm oil.
Although many companies provide education and health facilities for workers and their families and also ensure that their pay meets the local minimum wage, many other plantation workers who are contractual or daily hired hands, more often than do not enjoy the same privileges.
It is important that agricultural workers, whatever their status, are paid a minimum wage and that national labor law is observed. Regarding child labor, the Asian tradition of all family members helping the breadwinner in earning money is often ignored even though this is more often than not what is behind the finding of children working in plantations. Companies have also argued that regarding gender discrimination, it was usually the women workers who opted for more flexibility in their work hours as they usually also have to take care of their family too and thus shy away from more permanent work positions.
The land conflict also remains prevalent, especially where customary land rights are ignored by the authorities when issuing concession rights to the plantations. The lack of a single map for all concerned institutions also contributes to many of the overlaps that are at the base of land conflicts.
To respond to international criticism of practices in the palm oil industries, sustainability certifications schemes could help. They include widely recognized schemes such as from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC) as well as to9 a lesser extent, others such as the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) the Rainforest Alliance,and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB).
Palm oil itself is not a bad commodity. It has the highest yield of any oil plant and is the most versatile too, producing two different oils that are useful to industry: palm oil and palm kernel oil. In the production of oil and fat, oil palms occupy the smallest proportion of all the land used, about four percent, while contributing 32 percent of worldwide oil production.
What needs to be ensured is that palm oil production is made sustainable across its entire supply chain. Sustainability certifications, by imposing a variety of standards and criteria, will help reduce the destruction of rainforests, ensure that the land converted into plantation do not adversely impact on the environment, that areas of high conservation value not be cleared to make way for new plantations, compliance with good agricultural practices, that only sustainable palm oil reach the mills and only sustainable crude palm oil is produced, as well as ensure that the basic rights of the indigenous communities, workers and their families are respected and considered.
And with smallholder already accounting for 40 percent of Indonesia’s oil palm plantation, it is imperative that they also are drawn into the fold of sustainability, including through certification.