NGOs and campaign groups almost never admit that the oil palm industry is in the right as far as deforestation claims are concerned. However, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) – a US-based campaign group – has bucked the trend.

In a blog-post on Dec 14, 2016, (see Ending Tropical Deforestation) it pointed out that oil palm cultivation is not the environmental bogeyman that NGOs have made it out to be. Why? Because it is not a major contributor to global deforestation.

What changed the UCS stance is a 2016 report by Climate Focus, written for signatories to the New York Declaration on Forests. In particular, it looked at the Declaration’s ‘Goal 2’ – to support and help meet the private-sector goal of eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soybean, paper and beef products by no later than 2020, recognising that many companies have even more ambitious targets.

The study found that agricultural commodities such as beef, soybean and maize have a significantly higher deforestation footprint than the oil palm. In the case of beef, it is about 10 times more. The analysis also examined data from the European Commission (EC), which has previously looked at the deforestation footprints of the commodities.

The study pointed out that oil palm companies have made significantly bigger commitments to zero deforestation than any other commodity group, despite being a much lower contributor.

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The UCS mea culpa has larger implications for environmental campaigning. As the blog-post states in part:

‘In working to change the world, there’s always a need to keep asking ourselves whether we’re focusing on what’s most important. This certainly applies to the effort to end tropical deforestation, which is why I [scientific adviser Doug Boucher] and my UCS colleagues have put a lot of emphasis on figuring out what causes – and in particular, which businesses – are the main drivers of deforestation.

Unfortunately, a recent study indicates that that global corporations that have committed to ending the deforestation they cause, have got their priorities backwards. And it suggests that the NGO community – and that definitely includes me – may have had our priorities wrong too.’

The issue for the broader campaigning community is whether they will now cease their absurd attacks on the oil palm industry and if they will apologise for erroneous claims.

Damage done

A bigger question, though, involves the funding that continues to be associated with such NGO campaigns.

The Climate and Land Use Alliance, a coalition of US-based foundations, has funded myriad activities against palm oil. A look at its Global Grants list indicates that it has spent more than US$13 million across 38 such projects – including US$3 million to Greenpeace.

Compare this with its spending on five activities involving soybean (US$2.5 million) and several on beef (US$759,000). The beef projects were not even exclusive activities; these also looked at different commodities.

Greenpeace is in the middle of utilising a US$1 million grant directed at palm oil, as is the Rainforest Action Network. Friends of the Earth is working through a US$400,000 grant. It’s no wonder the campaigning against palm oil and the subsequent commitments have been skewed: there was simply more money thrown at it.

Another factor is that there is no substitute for beef. And since the world’s largest beef producers are the US and the EU, negative campaigns are simply not politically tenable.

In the EU, palm oil can be substituted with competing domestic products such as sunflower and rapeseed oils. As such, generating an environmental case against the oil palm – which is really only grown in two countries that are not major trading partners – is a no-brainer.

This is not the first time that environmentalists have declared war on a particular industry and got the underlying facts wrong.

During the 1990s and most of the 2000s, campaigners concentrated heavily on the timber industry. There was an assumption that demand for wood was leading to global forest loss. This resulted in campaigns against paper products and raised an entire industry of consultants working on illegal logging policy. But it was not timber demand that was the problem: it was the need to grow food.

But there is little disadvantage for NGOs if they are proved wrong. Greenpeace claimed for a long time that tropical deforestation was responsible for about 25% of global carbon emissions. The estimate is now much closer to 10%. Greenpeace would no doubt justify this by saying it had brought attention to the issue.

In the case of palm oil, though, erroneous information has harmed the commodity’s reputation and affected the livelihood of some three million small farmers who grow oil palm. While they are surely the ones who could do with an apology, will this be enough to repair the damage done?

MPOC

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