Looking beyond Indonesia’s forests to find a sustainable future for palm oil

Found in everything from foods to cosmetics to soaps, palm oil is all but ubiquitous in today’s world. Most of that palm oil comes from Southeast Asia — and the world’s appetite for it is growing. Oil palm production in Indonesia is expected to nearly double by 2020. That’s enough new palm trees to cover Singapore 56 times over.

Where will this land come from? More often than not, this land comes at the expense of forests: Recent research has shown that the conversion of forest to agricultural plantations, including oil palm, was the main cause of forest loss in Southeast Asia in the past two decades.

Indonesia is home to the world’s third-largest area of tropical forest. It is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, its output representing nearly half of the global total. In 2012, Indonesian palm oil generated almost $18 billion in revenue from exports. Now, the country finds itself in the middle of a growing chorus of international concern about the sustainability of this crucial commodity. Can it continue to expand its palm oil production — a linchpin of its economy — without felling its forests?

Unlike issues such as corruption, deforestation and climate change in Indonesia are often depicted as global problems — even though Indonesia is on the “front lines” of both. Mobilizing the Indonesian public to recognize the real threats posed to the country by these problems could go a long way…

The short answer: Yes. The long answer: Yes — but it will be difficult, requiring 1) continued public pressure on companies and the government; 2) further research on how these initiatives could work, whether companies are changing their behavior, and whether their actions can be scaled up; and 3) a renewed push by Indonesia’s government to enforce existing regulatory structures and close loopholes.

At the moment, the pressure is on: Growing consumer awareness of the effects of unsustainable agricultural expansion has helped spur the recent wave of non-deforestation pledges from major corporations. Every month brings more — from Nestle to Mars.

Even so, public pressure from outside Indonesia may not be enough. A new analysis shows that popular pressure from within the country could be more important for curbing deforestation than any governmental reforms. Unlike issues such as corruption, deforestation and climate change in Indonesia are often depicted as global problems — even though Indonesia is on the “front lines” of both. Mobilizing the Indonesian public to recognize the real threats posed to the country by these problems could go a long way in weakening the link between natural resource extraction and the country’s political and economic culture.

In terms of the private sector, whether corporate no-deforestation policies will bear fruit remains to be seen. Further research will be needed to determine whether measurable changes are occurring, whether there is actual uptake of conservation initiatives among palm oil companies, and whether those initiatives can be expanded.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an international framework established to promote certifiably sustainable palm oil, should be embraced. The same applies to the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil standard, which will become mandatory in Indonesia at the end of 2014. The standards imposed by ISPO amount to a checklist, but uptake has been slow, and many companies still do not meet these fairly basic regulations.

But a focus on the large-scale plantation companies that are in the public eye might not give the whole picture: Much of the current wave of expansion of palm-oil plantations is occurring at the hands of small and medium enterprises. These companies are not on stock exchanges; there is presumably less pressure to act sustainably. What are their financial situations? What are their relationships with local communities? These questions require further study.

Finally, the government: Indonesia’s vaunted moratorium on new forestry concessions in primary forest and peatlands — part of a quest to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions by 26 per cent from a projected 2020 baseline — was a useful step in curbing deforestation.

Yet it has had mixed results: oil palm continues to expand into forests in spite of it. In some cases, concessions were allotted before the ban went into effect and are becoming active now. In other cases, districts or provinces in the midst of creating new spatial plans can legally seek to reclassify designated forest areas to conversion areas, which the Forestry Ministry can approve. Measures like these should not be banned outright, but a more deliberative approach can help ensure that further concessions are truly necessary. Continued forest conversion in these cases is legal, but it defies the spirit of the moratorium and will derail the country’s stated quest to reduce its carbon emissions by 2020 — deforestation has led to Indonesia being the world’s third-worst emitter of greenhouse gases, after the United States and China.

There is one potential solution that could perhaps generate the greatest benefit: Moving new oil palm plantations to non-forested land.

According to the World Resources Institute, Indonesia has as much as 14 million hectares of this so-called degraded land, in the form of scrubland, grassland or previously deforested land. This option isn’t the easiest to employ — there are legal and technical hurdles, including how to negotiate transfers of rights and ownership over these lands — but estimates indicate that this area could sustain the expansion of Indonesia’s palm oil industry for years to come, without sacrificing more of the country’s forests.

Palm oil is not going away — global demand is higher than ever. In Indonesia, it contributes to infrastructure development and poverty alleviation. But these benefits, over the long term, pale in comparison to the further destruction of Indonesia’s forests, and the effects on climate change that this destruction will have.

Many potential solutions to this problem already exist, but they are imperfect, hindered by loopholes, information gaps and institutional inertia. The public, corporations, researchers and the government all have roles to play in helping to resolve these issues — and to make palm oil more sustainable.

Krystof Obidzinski is a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). This post originally appeared in The Jakarta Globe.

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