Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Lords of Extraction: World Wildlife Fund’s laudable but misguided hope to get palm oil under control

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 cultivation.

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 bite.

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?

Concurrently, policy 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 policies.

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 discussion.

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 bad cop-roles).

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

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