Whale swimming - photo by Guille Pozzi - photo by Guille Pozzi

Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil

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Recently, thanks in part to the work of Voices for Biodiversity, forest-devouring and land-developing companies like Asia Pulp and Paper and their relatives in the palm oil industry, Golden Agri Resources, both made pledges to adopt zero net deforestation policies in their work. Even Wilmar Group, one of the worst companies when it comes to transparency of their (lack of) environmental record, made a similar pledge, as all three companies signed up with The Forest Trust to improve their approach to sustainable environmental management and sustainable palm oil production.

It means that 2013 was a good year for forests.

Or was it?

The biggest problem with all of these zero-deforestation “pledges” is that none of them will go into action until 2020.

But by most estimates, many forests suitable for palm oil plantations in production countries such as Indonesia could be gone by 2020. It’s easy, then, to promise not to cut down any more trees if there are no more trees to cut down.

Conservationist and environmental consultant Robert Hii, one of the driving forces behind this new round of anti-unsustainable palm oil campaigns, has expressed disgust for what he sees as a lack of enthusiasm and real-world solutions by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and he believes that new agreements are doing little to improve the already-tainted status quo.

Hii also cites numerous examples to illustrate what harm can come if we wait until 2020 to commit to zero net deforestation. Claims of land grabs by palm oil and timber plantations in Indonesia are echoing through local Indonesian media as Big Business attempts to develop as much land as possible before the cut-off date. Families who have spent generations working the land are now having their small farms yanked out from under them in duplicitous purchases, leaving them homeless, destitute and, in some cases, still tied to that land in what is akin to modern slavery.

This is addition to the ubiquitous images of slaughtered and scarred landscapes dotted with the burned remains of endangered wildlife that have been scattered throughout international media. Images of injured orangutans tug at the human heart strings, and yet the “development” continues, despite pressures from groups such as Rainforest Action Network and some minor acknowledgement from companies such as Kellogg and Unilever.

There are also numerous concerns over climate change. According to The Conversation, “Indonesia’s peatlands hold at least 57 billion gigatonnes (Gigatonnes or Gt) of carbon, making them a globally significant terrestrial carbon pool.” The Union of Concerned Scientists has long warned about greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil cultivation and is urging companies to adopt strong policies on peat-free sourcing. Without governance, we could likely see the time bomb go off and contribute to many more dire situations like the one California is in now.

So while it’s good that we have the world (and, specifically, palm oil companies) talking and thinking about palm oil and how devastating it can be to planet Earth and all the beings on it, the “solutions” are thus far discouragingly inadequate. We need louder voices, bigger plans, and bolder strategies if we hope to quell the wreckage caused by the world’s insatiable taste for palm oil.

Photos are copyright protected and may not be reproduced without permission. The orangutan photo is courtesy of Caroline Braker. The Indonesian sign photo is courtesy of Robert Hii.

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