For those of you who follow this blog you know that there isn’t much JMD or I can hear these days about palm oil turning over a new leaf (or frond) that we actually believe to be true.
From the massive deforestation and disregard for land tenure and indigenous rights to the “regulations” regarding “sustainable palm oil” that were crafted by the palm oil companies themselves to the absolute absence of any field-based monitoring of labor conditions and environmental pollution, Big Palm has lumbered along, expanding into the rainforest, destroying pretty much anything in its path, paying fines, bribing officials, and weathering accusations with million-dollar campaigns designed to convince the public that palm oil is healthy, necessary, good for the planet, a wonderful substitute for fossil fuels, and an all-round warm and fuzzy ingredient.
So it is with a fair amount of skepticism and a teeny bit of hope that we hear, simultaneously, of Musim Mas, a large Indonesian palm oil trader who has made the commodities market equivalent of a Kim Kardashian publicity photo by announcing that it will take the Indonesian “Palm Oil Pledge,” which commits the company “to only source palm oil that is free from links to deforestation and peatland destruction.” http://thejakartaglobe.beritasatu.com/news/musim-mas-goes-green-new-palm-oil-pledge/
The IPOP is a relatively new gimmick (please forgive me, you sincere environmentalists out there who think that this is going to work, because I hope it does) that aims to force palm oil producers to adhere to zero-deforestation standards and fair labor practices by promising to purchase only palm oil grown by complying companies. Greenpeace, who I think is behind this, notes, that “The next step for IPOP signatories like Musim Mas is to take necessary measures to put their ambitious commitments into practice. These companies need to ensure there is no link to forest clearance and peatlands in their supply chains and work closely with suppliers to comply with their commitments.”
Well, that’s where the train of my enthusiasm careens off the rails into the desert of reality. What I mean by this is perhaps best illustrated by a new initiative from those investigative pit bulls over at Mongabay, who have announced a year-long Palm Oil Reporting Project, http://mongabay.org/programs/special-reporting-initiatives/sri-opportunities/mongabay-reporting-network-palm oil/?utm_source=MRN%3A+Indonesian+Fisheries&utm_campaign=MRN+Indo+Fisheries&utm_medium=email
They are asking journalists and NGOs to pitch stories to them from the field on a variety of topics. Including finance and economics, activism, food security, communities and labor, palm oil biofuels, politics, ecosystem services, etc. They provide over 100 questions that a journalist could tackle. Here are just a few:
- What is the effectiveness of palm oil campaigns in consumer markets (e.g. is the claim that Norwegians’ palm oil consumption has plunged due to campaigns true? If so, how did that come about?)
- How are plantation developers approaching communities whose land they seek?
- How is implementation of the Indonesian Constitutional Court’s 2013 decision on indigenous land rights progressing with respect to land conflicts involving oil palm plantations?
- Has there been any progress reducing violent responses from police and security forces on behalf of the palm oil industry when a land dispute with a community escalates?
- Is respect for labor rights improving?
- What are the politics behind Indonesia’s proposal to divert part of its diesel subsidy savings to its palm oil biofuel subsidy?
- What is the status of Indonesia’s One Map initiative and its implications for the palm oil industry? What are the prospects of disclosing boundaries and ownership of all concessions?
- Are any companies experiencing resistance from government figures who would rather they clear valuable forest than conserve it? How are these situations playing out?
- How are the realities of oil palm expansion measuring up to rhetoric in frontiers like Africa, Latin America and Papua New Guinea?
- How might ongoing modifications to Indonesia’s banking secrecy laws affect the palm oil industry?
- Is the broader moratorium established by Indonesian President Jokowi being enforced and respected? Have there been prosecutions? What is the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) doing?
- How is Indonesia addressing illegal logging and non-licensed clearing for timber as it pertains to palm oil companies? Is there a meaningful link to the Timber Legality Verification System (SVLK)?
- How are best practices for determining Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) evolving and proliferating?
Good questions, but most point to what I think is a simple flaw in the exercise: there are few if any individuals, groups or government/regulatory agencies who have ever been to, much less lived in, the heart of the plantations, or who plan on doing so any time soon. No independent monitoring group has ever produced a verifiable report on labor conditions. Many public relations dollars have been spent on creating sincere-sounding “standards” and guidelines for thee companies, while on the ground female laborers are regularly raped, land is stolen and boundaries changed, hired thugs patrol borders, erosion is rampant, protected forest is labeled “production” for those moments it takes a payment to be made . . .
So yay that there are going to be more inquiries into the minutiae of the vast and confusing web that is the palm oil value chain. But the only way Big Palm is going to be cut down to a manageable and sustainable size is if the Indonesian government makes some very hard decisions regarding how it wants to legitimately increase its economic strength, and how it plans to limit the continuing profits of the most powerful and wealthy people in the country--and the world.
So, Mongabay and Palm Oil Pledge, best of luck to both of you!!!