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Palm Oil: In the eye of the storm

Palm oil plantations in Peru’s Amazon have encroached on indigenous ancestral territories, destroying their communities' livelihoods and forest ecosystems.

There are those who are promoting palm oil as economically viable for the country to meet its domestic needs for edible oil, while on the other hand there are those who oppose the monoculture that has potential for long term impacts – socially, economically, and from the ecological and environmental perspectives.

By Salam Rajesh

The IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic & Social Policy (CEESP)’s issue of Policy Matters (September 2016) dives deep to explain the interrelation between the various forms of regulations in addressing conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity, and thereof supporting human livelihoods.

The publication focuses on the Voluntary Certification Standards (VCS) of the edible oils including palm oil, which is ‘a form of voluntary regulation of industry practice and are impacted by national legislation and other regulatory frameworks’.

Denis Ruysschaert in his article, “The Impact of Global Palm Oil Certification on Transnational Governance, Human Livelihoods and Biodiversity Conservation” (Policy Matters:45-58), writes that ‘The original idea was to work with all the private stakeholders of an agricultural supply chain to establish a standard that includes social and environmental criteria. The action is part of an overall historical process to establish an international framework to conserve biodiversity in tropical countries’.

In addressing the issue, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up in the year 2004 to ‘establish global certifications for agricultural commodities produced in the tropics, through the establishment of roundtables’. The RSPO is conglomerate of private members consisting of palm oil growers, palm oil processors, consumer goods manufacturers, environmental NGOs, social NGOs, banks and investors, and retailers.

The oil palm cultivation around the world is one of the contested global issues on social and environmental concerns, including human rights issues. Ruysschaert writes that most of the more than 3500 land disputes in Indonesia alone between 1997 and 2009 were due to oil palm plantations (p.47). The global production of major edible oils accounts for palm oil at 35 percent, soybean at 29 percent, rapeseed 15 percent, sunflower 8 percent, palm kernel 4 percent, peanut 3 percent, and cottonseed, olive and coconut at 2 percent each (Ruysschaert:47).

In a recent online update on the debates surrounding palm oil, ecologist and hardliner environmentalist Vandana Shiva who is known for hard hitting statements reflecting on government’s policies, referred on the critical question why the government is pushing for the controversial oil palm cultivation – which itself is an exotic species – instead of promoting the traditional and indigenous sources of edible oil that the country has been producing and using since ages.

Shiva’s argument sounds rational in terms of promoting the traditional values of the country’s farmers in tune with goals for achieving self-reliance in agricultural produces, while also addressing issues of sustaining the traditional farming practices that are non-destructive in nature. Oil palm plantations are known for their destructive characteristics in the way forest lands and peatlands are destroyed extensively for the monoculture.

Shiva’s argument also reflects upon the rationale for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (1, 2 and 13 for instance) of the United Nations that seeks to address eradication of poverty and hunger through strengthening of grassroots activism in rural economy, while also looking at the regeneration of farmlands and fallow jhum lands.

Citing the case of Indonesia which is one of the largest producers of palm oil in the world, Ruysschaert (p.49) touches on the complex issue of commercialization of the monoculture in terms of economic domination over the indigenous population. The reference is on the complexity surrounding land ownership where in Indonesia the ‘largest leases of several hectares each are allocated to entrepreneurs close to central power’.

It rather is astounding that each of the largest 23 producers in Indonesia manages at least 100,000 hectares and, together, they control more than 7.8 million hectares. On top of this, 1217 farms of more than 50 hectares each manage a total of 5.5 million hectares, while smallholders who manage about 2 hectares of land each control an additional 5 million hectares. That brings up to 18 million hectares or more under oil palm cultivation in the biodiverse tropical rainforests of Indonesia.

The viral video of an endangered Orangutan trying to stop an excavator from destroying its habitat deep in the rainforest of Indonesia had captured the imagination of the world on the extreme nature of devastation that the monoculture oil palm is causing in the biodiversity rich tropical rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia.

It is in this picture of expected destruction of pristine nature reserves that voices of dissidence over the Government of India’s unilateral decision to introduce oil palms in the biodiversity sensitive Andaman & Nicobar Islands and the North East comes to the fore.

Civil society organizations in both Andaman & Nicobar Islands and the North East are gearing up their forte to stop the Government from taking up the INR 11,040 crore national edible oil mission – with focus on palm oil particularly – which is largely seen as a major project that would have long term negative impacts on land, forests, biodiversity and the indigenous peoples in these ‘project-specific’ areas.

Marcus Colchester in his article “Do commodity certification systems uphold indigenous peoples’ rights?” (Policy Matters:149-165) writes that ‘Governments’ failure to adequately regulate natural resource use to protect environmental values and human rights has led to the development of ‘voluntary’ certification systems for several commodities’.

It indeed is paradoxical that ‘global campaigns against the relentless logging of South East Asian forests by corporations, at the expense of local communities and indigenous peoples, exposed the collusion between State bureaucracies and private companies driven by the global timber trade’ (Policy Matters:151). This statement reflects upon the known neo-capitalist practices in third world countries where companies and corporate undermine the interests of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), as similarly as was in the colonial times.

The oil palm debate is just starting to surface in the entire Northeast region, whereas, this has been there for quite some time now in the international circuit. There are those who are promoting palm oil as economically viable for the country to meet its domestic needs for edible oil, while on the other hand there are those who oppose the monoculture that has potential for long term impacts – socially, economically, and from the ecological and environmental perspectives.

The hard hitting issue concerned with palm oil is the context on land grabbing and violation of human rights. It, therefore, is largely seen that the conflicts of interest between States and IPLCs over palm oil had ignited protests in all of those areas under palm oil cultivation. The use of force – read as deployment of private armed personnel by companies – to intimidate IPLCs has led to international outcry over cases of extreme human rights violations.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the Voluntary Certification Standards may be instruments to find solutions to the hardline conflicts, but ultimately the monoculture oil palms could be the proverbial ‘thorn in the flesh’ in achieving the SDG goals set by the United Nations.

(The writer is associated with IUCN CEESP. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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