Oil palm plantation and natural forest in Costa Rica. All photos by Rhett Butler.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has signed an agreement with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to promote eco-certified palm oil as part of the broader effort to conserve biodiversity.
The move, announced Thursday, commits UNEP and RSPO to work together to uphold standards for certified palm oil and encourage uptake in global markets. UNEP says RSPO-certified palm oil could contribute toward UN development goals.
“Our hope is that by combining our political and institutional resources, we are able to add value to the efforts that are being undertaken by community groups, NGOs, national authorities and leaders in the business community,” said UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in a statement. “The RSPO deserves our support in their commitment to produce palm oil sustainably.”
“Palm oil is a classic example of where win-win opportunities arise. The palm oil sector can provide leadership on how to use a global market place to improve production patterns and transition towards a greener, more inclusive economy.”
Oil palm and forest in Malaysia.
UNEP’s commitment may provide a boost for the RSPO, which has lost some of its prominence in recent months with a wave of companies signing zero deforestation policies that go beyond the initiative’s certification standards by excluding palm oil produced via deforestation and conversion of peatlands. However most of those commitments are underpinned by RSPO criteria for other elements of sustainability, leaving the RSPO as the dominant social and environmental standard for the sector.
Nevertheless the move is bound to be controversial among activist groups that have criticized the RSPO on several fronts, including its lack of a zero deforestation requirement and a policy of association that has allowed some members to continue damaging practices despite membership.
Supporters of the RSPO, which includes a wide range of stakeholders, argue that the initiative serves as an important platform for issues surrounding palm oil production. It also offers NGOs and communities a mechanism for registering complaints against members that violate the standard, guidelines for producers to improve the sustainability of their operations, and a structure that potentially incentivizes greener production.
These features are important given the controversies around conventional palm oil production, which is blamed for driving deforestation and carbon emissions, exacerbating social conflict, and undercutting local food security. But the high productivity and profitability of palm oil — which has a far higher yield than other oilseeds like soy, coconut, or canola — means the product isn’t going away any time soon. Accordingly, recent campaigns by green groups have focused on pushing new plantation development to non-forest lands to curb environmental damage, while maximizing vegetable oil production for a given area of land.
A young Sumatran orangutan in North Sumatra. The orangutan has become the symbol for opposition to conventional palm oil production since the sector is one of the biggest threats to great ape habitat.
UNEP and the RSPO say they hope that the joint effort will help differentiate conventional and certified palm oil in the eyes of the public.
“[The effort] aims to raise the global awareness of sustainable palm oil and generate market demand for an important commodity that has the potential to play a key role in preserving the earth’s biodiversity,” the organizations said in a statement. “Palm oil is the top-selling vegetable oil in the world and is found in 50 percent of all consumer goods. But conventional production methods – while offering huge economic and social opportunities for exporting nations — are highly unsustainable and can cause serious damage to the environment.”
“Certified Sustainable palm oil, however, complies with globally agreed environmental standards that relate to social, environmental and economic best practices. Sustainable palm oil has the potential to make a significant contribution to the post-2015 Development Agenda, including UNEP’s efforts on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) and Green Economy.”
Oil palm plantation in Malaysian Borneo.
The environmental impact of palm oil
The high profitability of palm oil has driven large-scale expansion of oil palm plantations around the world, but especially in Malaysia and Indonesia, which together account for 87 percent of production. While some expansion has taken place on agricultural lands and in place of other plantations, substantial areas of wildlife-rich rainforests and carbon-dense peatlands have been cleared for palm estates — by one account, at least 3.5 million hectares in Indonesia and Malaysia between 1990 and 2010. Because these lands are often utilized by local people, expansion has sometimes increased conflicts within communities and between communities and companies. Conventional oil palm plantations may also degrade local water supplies through pollution and chemical runoff.