Conservation news

Can technology help clean up the palm oil industry?

  • With fire-driven haze casting a pall over Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, the palm oil industry is facing intense pressure to clean up its act.
  • But technology may be able to ease the process.
  • SXSW is hosting a panel, From Cell Phones to Satellites – Tech Tools for More Sustainable Palm Oil, next week that will look at how technology is being used to clean up the palm oil industry.

With fire-driven haze casting a pall over Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, the palm oil industry is facing intense pressure to clean up its act.

While most big companies have adopted no burn policies, their historical land management practices 𔍼 which beyond clearing million of hectares of native vegetation include fragmenting forests and draining peat swamps — have nonetheless created conditions that underpin the current haze crisis. Furthermore, the smaller businesses and landholders that supply them with palm fruit continue to use fire as a primary tool for clearing. These fires may spread into adjacent concessions owned by bigger companies, creating legal headaches and reputational risks that are difficult to overcome even with the best sustainability policy.

The issues hint at the complexity of cleaning up the global palm oil supply chain. Indeed, implementing a zero deforestation commitment is a far greater challenge than establishing a policy in the first place. But technology may be able to ease the process. Clarifying land rights, fire and deforestation monitoring, supply chain tracking, and identifying high conservation value forests and high carbon stock areas are places where cell phones, satellite imagery, and even drones can help.

Fire being used to clear land around an oil palm plantation in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Along those lines, I’m pleased to be moderating at a panel next Monday at South By Southwest Eco (SXSW Eco). The panel, titled From Cell Phones to Satellites – Tech Tools for More Sustainable Palm Oil, will include Christine McGrath of Mondelez International, which as a large food company is a big palm oil buyer; Colin Lee of Cargill, a major palm oil producer and trader; Gemma Tillack of Rainforest Action Network; an activist group that campaigns on social and environmental issues linked to palm oil production; and Sarah Lake of World Resources Institute (WRI), which has developed Global Forest Watch, a platform for monitoring forests and commodity supply chains.

With such a diverse group of participants, the discussion promises to be interesting. If you aren’t able to attend in person, you can follow the discussion at sxsweco.com or via Twitter with the hashtag #PalmOilTech.