10 December 2015

Zero-deforestation commitments in a world of oil palm smallholders

When the fires broke out in Indonesia this past year—driven at least partially, though not entirely, by El Nino—blame for the crisis was pointed at a whole host of figures. During a jam-packed session on Zero-Deforestation Commitments at the Global Landscapes Forum in Paris, France, in which three of the panelists were Indonesian, the topic of palm oil, fires, and complicity were fiercely debated by both panelists and audience members alike.

“We want to secure our supply,” said Tiur Rumondang, with the Indonesia Business Council on Sustainable Development, speaking on behalf of Indonesia’s palm oil companies.

The reality is that palm oil is a complex commodity, with a long, interwoven supply chain that makes traceability difficult. Adding to the challenge is that, in Indonesia, much of the fruit is produced on smallholder farms.

These farms then sell it to refineries which, in turn, pass it on to major global conglomerates, producers, and then into food and bath products consumed around the world.

“Many smallholders have independent plantations,” said Mansuetus Darto, representative of Serikat Petani Kelapa Sawit (Indonesian Smallholders Palm Oil Union). “The problem is schemes are not attractive to smallholder, so they go outside the scheme, and keep planting.”

According to Darto, this means that the system is set up so that it promotes individual smallholders—many of whom are independent and lack access to much financial capital—to plant as much as they can, as fast as they can. Fires, which are used to clear land, are a symptom of this larger problem.

Another challenge in holding smallholders accountable for their land use practices is that many of them do not have land titles, which, for many, are far too expensive to attain. This system creates an economic barrier for them to be part of zero-deforestation and sustainability schemes.

“Companies and Governments must help to make this easier,” said Darto, “to assist smallholders legality.”

Anissa Rahmawati of Greenpeace Indonesia believes that, while smallholders do have a role to play in preventing forest fires and creating sustainable palm oil supply chains, companies, Governments, and consumers in countries like the United States or in Europe are also part of the solution.

“It’s not fair to put the responsibility only on companies, but we need more companies to commit to zero-deforestation policies,” said Annissa.

Right now, the rainy season as brought some relief to Southeast Asia, but with El Niño strengthening almost by the day, many expect that dry conditions will return early in 2016, bringing with it more fires. As we continue to learn more about how oil palm production impacts land and forest fires in Indonesia, it is crucial that we develop policy initiatives that create real, actionable solutions to one of the biggest environmental challenges facing the world right now.