Row erupts over magic number that could save forests from palm oil

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Palm oil corporations, environmental groups and forest experts can't seem to agree to clearly define what constitutes a 'High Carbon Stocks' forest - and a new group of palm oil growers embark on study to find out how to delineate such forests. Image: Shutterstock

Trees store carbon dioxide, a planet-warming gas, and if the amount of CO2 in a given forest is high enough, it may well save it from being razed for another oil palm plantation.

A rising number of global companies that produce and use palm oil – found in everything from cosmetics to cereals - have promised not to cut down forests with a “High Carbon Stock” (HCS), but what’s the magic carbon storage number to achieve salvation?

It’s a number that palm oil corporations, green groups and forest experts can’t seem to agree on. Now the palm oil industry is leading a new push to hammer out the details.

Seven of the world’s biggest oil palm growers and traders announced last week they will fund a year-long study to clearly define what constitutes an HCS forest, and provide practical guidance on how to delineate such forests on the ground.

This new study, to be launched formally in October, is not the first work to be done on HCS forest. In 2011, palm oil producer Golden Agri-Resources Limited, The Forest Trust (TFT) and Greenpeace spearheaded the effort with a study that is still ongoing.

Yet while most environmental campaigners welcome additional research on which types of land should not be converted into oil palm plantations, they have refused to partner with the seven companies on the new study - despite being invited.

Experts say 35 tonnes of carbon per hectare (tC/ha) of trees has come to be regarded as the cut-off point for distinguishing forests that should be preserved from degraded land

The companies involved - including Malaysia’s Sime Darby Plantation, Indonesia’s Asian Agri and Musim Mas Group and global agribusiness company Cargill - committed to a Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto (SPOM) and the HCS study last month, but refused environmental groups’ request to plant only on grassland and scrubland while the study is carried out.

Bustar Maitar, head of the Indonesia forest campaign at Greenpeace International, said “allowing clearance in the name of ‘sustainability’ is nothing less than greenwashing. To show they are serious about addressing deforestation, the group must immediately stop clearing potential HCS forests.”

Rights to development

The SPOM companies called the green groups’ request “unacceptable” because it failed to acknowledge “the role of governments and rural communities to assess their own rights to development, leaving the decision solely to NGOs and companies”.

In a written response to questions from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the SPOM secretariat noted that manifesto signatories are already preserving primary forests, peat land and areas of high conservation value, as members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an association that runs an international certification scheme.

“At present there is no accepted methodology for identifying HCS areas that include criteria to balance the need for responsible agricultural and economic development,” the secretariat said.

“Once the new study is completed and HCS thresholds are suitably defined with due consideration given to rural and developing communities, the signatories will apply these standards.”

Smear campaign against “35”?

Experts say 35 tonnes of carbon per hectare (tC/ha) of trees has come to be regarded as the cut-off point for distinguishing forests that should be preserved from degraded land.

According to Greenpeace, that includes all categories of forest from dense primary rainforest down to young, regenerating forest. Anything below 35tC/ha - scrub and open land - is considered low carbon stock and potentially suitable for plantation development.

“Companies are concerned about that threshold because it doesn’t allow them to clear land,” said Calen May-Tobin, lead analyst on palm oil with the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

In a recent post on, Scott Poynton of The Forest Trust argued that the figure of 35tC/ha was largely backed up by research. He accused some in the palm oil industry - “worried that a HCS, forest/non-forest threshold set at 35tC/ha will mean no more development” - of embarking on “an aggressive smear campaign against that number”.

Compromise urged

Forest rights advocates hope the row over the HCS definition will evolve into a compromise that takes into account the vital carbon storage function of forests as well as local communities’ need to use forests to grow food and make a living.

“Achieving environmental goals can leave even less land for the people… we need to include more protection for people’s livelihoods,” said Marcus Colchester, a senior policy advisor with the Forest Peoples Programme.

“Consumers want something more robust - companies know they need to respond, and they can’t afford to lose market share. It’s in everyone’s interest to find accommodation,” he said. “It will discredit the sector more if it turns into an open fight.”

The SPOM secretariat told Thomson Reuters Foundation it is aiming to achieve “a single, industry-accepted approach” that will also work for governments and civil society.

Meanwhile, the biggest corporate palm oil traders and buyers that have not signed the SPOM are hedging their bets. Singapore-based Wilmar International, for example, has committed to partially funding the new study.

Unilever is also supporting the study and is a member of the steering committee, as part of its push to promote sustainable and traceable palm oil, and to halt deforestation and new development on peat areas, it said.

“The Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto shows the industry is working towards one High Carbon Stock definition which drives change that is good for forests, orangutans and for local communities. This isn’t easy,” the company said by email.

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