Saturday, 6 September 2008

Meeting with the makers of palm oil

Unlike many large conservation groups, with GREENPEACE we can at least see they are VERY active and doing good work.

Meeting with the makers of palm oil

5 September 2008. Greenpeace report

Last week, campaigners from Greenpeace South-East Asia met with palm oil producers and traders to discuss the challenges faced by the industry if it's going to get a grip on the problem of deforestation.

The seminar was designed to get these companies thinking about the impact their trade is having on forests in the region, and working groups brought together industry reps and campaigners to discuss the issues involved, particularly our demand for a moratorium on clearing forest areas for palm oil plantations.

From what I've heard from the campaigners involved, there was plenty of constructive debate even if not everyone agreed on what needs to be done (or even, in some cases, that there is a problem).

Representatives from Unilever called for a moratorium as soon as possible, and a union of smallholders talked about the long list of problems and conflicts between companies and local communities. The union wants the brakes put on palm oil expansion until these issues are resolved and talked about increasing productivity in existing plantations as an alternative to clearing new areas.

But Derom Bangun from Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association (Gapki) was clearly not in favour of a moratorium.

Bangun threw up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) as proof that the industry was already doing everything it could to be environmentally responsible, but we know that RSPO members are still involved in clearing large areas of forest and seizing land for local owners without their consent.

He also claimed that Gapki members haven't touched areas of valuable rainforest since 2005, but again that's not true. Palm oil trader Sinar Mas is a Gapki member but was picked out by us last year for devastating areas of Sumatra to grow palm oil.

However, Bangun was right to say that the West needs to do its bit as well - climate change, which is in part being fuelled by the felling of Indonesia's rainforests, is a global problem. His suggestion was that countries like the UK use their agricultural land to grow plant trees and create carbon sinks, but however appealing a landscape full of trees might be it's not very practical.

Apart from recent research which indicates that mature forests store up to 60 per cent more carbon than plantations and the general questions over offsetting emissions by planting trees, the priority is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions rather than soak up the excess.

For developed nations, that includes ramping up energy efficiency, shifting to renewable energy sources and backing financial mechanisms to ensure forests in other parts of the world are protected. Indonesia is one of those forest nations and deforestation is helping to make it the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

But the main thrust of Gapki's objection to an immediate moratorium was that it would harm Indonesia's economy and as one of the largest producers of palm oil in the world. As the smallholders pointed out, however, there is a good deal that could be done to increase yields in existing plantations that would allow the palm oil industry to grow without expanding into rainforest and peatland areas.

So while individual players like Unilever are on board, there's still a lot of work to do to get the industry as a whole behind us. But coming up in November is the annual RSPO meeting when hopefully we'll see some major developments. Along with the interim moratorium on deforestation discussed recently in the Sumatran province of Riau, there's a lot going on in Indonesia right now.