It seems that everyone is enrolling in the "If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em" school these days regarding palm oil. It’s a near-useless commodity, it depletes the soil of any nutrients, and it grows in fragile areas that have to be destroyed in order for it to survive. Indeed, what’s not to love?
I’ve never seen a large international donor or NGO dispute this, and yet palm oil
plays such a big part in political relations between countries (ie it makes
people wildly rich and powerful and so it is in a country’s best interests to
not threaten that) that the only thing these foreign (and sometimes national)
entities can do is embrace palm oil and try to find some redeeming value to its
What USAID came up with about 4 years ago was an initiative to turn palm oil waste
into biofuel. Translation: it’s a horrible crop but at least we can make
something from its garbage. Of course,
we have to make more of it to make more garbage to make the biofuel producers
(and consumers) happy, but what the heck.
See, once you’re on the palm oil train . . . difficult to get off.
Indonesia and Malaysia produce 80% of the world’s palm oil.
Lucky, lucky them.
Agencies like World Wildlife Fund sigh and say, well, okay, palm oil sucks but so do a
lot of other commodities and so the thing to do is make its cultivation sustainable.
Which is like saying we’re going to make Ghengis Kahn a pacifist, but okay, I’ll
What does “sustainable” palm oil look like?
Here’s what it looks like in WWF’s project areas.
Welcome to WWF’s Forest Conversion Program (Gee, I’m liking the sound of that.)
Briefly, and minus the jargon that gave me a headache: The goal of the FCP is to ensure
that “high conservation value forests” and the plant and animal species that
live in them “are no longer threatened by the expansion of palm oil and
soy.” This project builds on a 2001
initiative called the Forest Conservation Initiative, that WWF claims to have
been successful in “engaging relevant stakeholders;” and in fact it was chiefly
responsible for the creation of the 2004 Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
(RSPO) of which I have spoken so fondly in previous posts.
“The rationale behind the roundtables is that
development of criteria, their implementation and the mainstream procurement of
responsibly/sustainably produced raw materials will transform the markets and
thus reduce the pressure on areas with high conservation values.”
And we know what came out of that. RSPO representatives notified us that the
regulations and activities were developed by the palm oil companies, and that
evaluation and monitoring of any of their recommendations/best practices has
yet to be done.
And I’m also still waiting to find out about the “sustainable” in “sustainable palm
oil.” If we know that palm oil palms
destroy the dirt in which they sit for 25 years, which is one of the reasons
for such exponential expansion and forest destruction, how can this practice be
“sustainable” and unthreatening to existing forests at the same time? Because sustainability, when applied to palm
oil, means the enterprise, not the environment or the local
community. Sure, palm oil cultivation
can be sustained—as long as you keep churning up the forest to create the stuff.
But I digress.
The Forest Conversion Program believes that the RSPO will “transform the production of palm oil . . . by
engaging companies that produce, trade or use products containing palm oil . .
. [as well as] the banks and other institutions that finance those companies.”
What does it mean to “engage” a company or a bank? And why would a palm oil company want to be “engaged” in a way that it
currently is not?
dialogues in producing countries [who is having these dialogues? God, I adore
the use of the passive voice. It allows
for such . . . hypnotic acceptance of whatever is being shoveled out] will lead to the adoption [by whom?] of a participatory landscape-level [I’m twitching now] land use planning methodology modeled after the
high conservation value area (HCVA) concept. [And I am sure it is been vetted thoroughly
with the local communities who actually own the land, or the general population
who voted for the politicians who vowed to preserve the forests.]
“The project . . . will motivate producers to adopt
environmentally and socially responsible practices, including the protection of
areas with high conservation value. This strategy will be reinforced by local
support in key producing areas aimed at testing and implementing appropriate
better management practices and participatory land use planning ”
And monkeys, as they say . . .
But I digress again. I really am not being
an obstinate old leftie. I am sincerely
interested to know how this project will in any way motivate palm oil
agribusiness to “adopt environmentally and socially responsible
practices.” There is no monetary
incentive. In Indonesia, the incentive
is to make more palm oil, whatever the human or environmental cost. The Project could try to get a government on
board and actually punish law-breakers, but that’s not going to happen any time
soon in Aceh, where the top 4 wealthiest Indonesians include palm oil barons.
WWF goes on to outline its goals for the project, which was presumably completed in
2011. By 2010 most goals were to have
been met, and the majority of these goals involved company “certifications” of
some sort by the RSPO. Which, as we have
seen (and heard from RSPO spokespeople) don’t mean diddly.
Another component is to get from 14-40% of large European and Asian buyers involved in
the project through accepting palm oil only from companies that have this
certification. So: wildly successful = 40% from certified companies. And crtification means: documents and
WWF sees its role in all this as a participant in the roundtables to make sure that “robust and time-bound delivery
mechanisms are put in place and enforced” and also to keep the commodities buyers involved in the
I would like to ask WWF how it is ensuring that the “delivery mechanisms” are
“being enforced.” But that seems like
kicking a puppy; there is no enforcement possible at this point.
Both palm oil and soy roundtables have the ambition to
develop widely accepted criteria to mitigate adverse ecological and social
effects. Subsequently, these criteria are to be implemented by producers and
buyers, in order to eventually reform respective supply chains. As the
initiator of both roundtables, WWF should stay involved in the governance
bodies, as well as ensuring that its corporate members implement and procure
sustainable palm oil and soy. This should include liaising with other NGOs to
ensure that corporate members deliver and stay actively involved (good cop vs
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to start cutting out pictures of the Aceh
rainforest for my scrapbook, because that’s the only way we’re ever going to
remember what it looked like.
For an update (of sorts) on WWF's involvement in the (surprise!) unwillingness of
palm oil companies to be transparent and conservation-minded, see its November
13th article, Palm oil sustainability body boosts complaints
handling, mapping requirements