Cutting through the rhetoric on palm oil production

Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
December 14, 2012

Oil palm plantation in peninsular Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Palm oil is widely acknowledged as one of the most important drivers of deforestation and forest diminishment in Southeast Asia. Conversion of forests and peatlands for oil palm plantations is both a substantial source of greenhouse gas emissions and a major threat to biodiversity — one study called palm oil the "single most immediate threat to the greatest number of species".

Yet palm palm production generates tens of billions of dollars per year for the economies of Indonesia and Malaysia and is the most profitable form of land use across large swathes of Borneo, Sumatra, and New Guinea. Oil palm plantations also yield more edible oil than any other major crop, providing a cheap source of cooking oil for the poor.

The palm oil seemingly presents a paradox: environment on one side, economy on the other. But does it have to be this way? A growing body of research indicates it doesn't. Indeed, it is possible to develop oil palm plantations on degraded, non-forest land so palm oil production avoids deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and biodiversity loss.

Oil palm plantation and forest in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Yet the rhetoric on palm oil — from both extremes — confuses the marketplace. Consumers may be led to believe all palm oil is made from ground-up baby orangutans, while producers may be inclined to dismiss environmental concerns as a conspiracy cooked up by the fossil fuel industry or American maize growers. Furthermore, information that could provide a path forward on the issue doesn't always reach the people who need it most: producers and consumers.

To address this issue, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has launched a new web site that aims to provide information on more sustainable palm oil production to all stakeholders. The site, called the Sustainable Palm Oil Platform (http://www.sustainablepalmoil.org/), "aims to deliver a comprehensive library of tools and resources, to facilitate communication between stakeholders and to increase the transparency of the supply chain in order to inform best practice and sustainability in the palm oil sector." The site includes case studies and a wealth of information tailed to specific users.

"The site is designed to be a participatory platform where stakeholders can contribute helpful and informative resources and discuss experiences and lessons learned via case studies," says ZSL, which has been working on palm oil issues in Indonesia since 2001.

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Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com (December 14, 2012).

Cutting through the rhetoric on palm oil production.