Falie is a typical rural Liberian settlement with a population of around 1,500, roughly 24km off the nearest covered road. The houses are rough and ready, using local timber, mud and corrugated iron. No running water, no sewerage, no electricity, no health clinic, no school, no shop. Not much, in effect, apart from a tightly-knit community spirit and intense loyalty to the Zodua Clan, made up of Falie itself and two similar settlements, Gohn and Karnga – 4,760 people in all, and what seems like a long way from the capital, Monrovia.

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Land development for agriculture has been part and parcel of economic growth in Malaysia’s largest state Sarawak, which embarked on this process in the 1970s. The policy is geared toward reducing poverty in rural areas, increasing food production, and generating revenue for the state.

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France has tested the use of front-of-pack nutrition labelling schemes in four regions: Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Île-de-France (the Paris metropolitan area), Haute Normandie and Hauts-de-France. Sixty stores in the Casino, Carrefour Market and Simply Market chains took part in the trial, during which 2 million labels were attached to about 1,200 food products.

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Recent media reports have praised yet another sustainable palm oil standard and label, called ‘Palm Done Right’. The standard was started by Natural Habitats, a business organisation formed by various operating companies and which has offices in Ecuador, Sierra Leone and the Netherlands. Natural Habitats produces, collects, processes and trades organic, fair trade and sustainable palm oil.

Currently, only two companies supply palm oil under the standard developed by Natural Habitats and Dr Bronner’s, a US-based personal care company with operations in Ghana. But it appears that any company that sources palm oil within the ‘Palm Done Right’ supply chain may use the logo on its products and marketing materials.

The presence of yet another palm oil sustainability standard complicates the market for businesses and operators in general. Natural Habitats prefers to refer to ‘Palm Done Right’ as an education programme, but has developed its own sustainability standard and has trademark rights to a logo to be placed on products.

In particular, the standard is for ‘conflict-free palm oil’, which it believes means that such palm oil is produced organically – using natural pest management, multi-cropping and composting – in a vertically integrated supply chain. Moreover, the oil palm must only be cultivated on existing crop land or on degraded land, be handpicked, and preferably be transported using animal labour.

Natural Habitats is of the view that its standard goes beyond other certification schemes, such as that of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is the most widely-used internationally.

Another popular certification standard is by the Palm Oil Innovation Group. Its Charter is intended to build upon the RSPO’s ‘Principles & Criteria’ with regard to deforestation, carbon stocks, biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, pesticide use and social relations.

At the national level, the best-known and well-structured sustainability standards and related certifications naturally come from the two countries that produce the most palm oil: Indonesia and Malaysia.

  • The Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) standard is a mandatory system. It recognises the differences in capability between large plantations and smallholders, and thus does not serve as an overly burdensome standard on smallholdings around the country.

     

  • The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standard is still voluntary, but has come as a welcome addition for small- and medium-size oil palm growers who cannot afford the cost of RSPO certification. The MSPO is intended to become mandatory in future.

Even more sustainability schemes relevant to palm oil exist, including the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC); the certification by the Rainforest Alliance/Sustainable Agriculture Network; the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials; the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto guidelines; and the High Carbon Stock Approach, which itself is built into other schemes.

The Centre for International Forest Research (CIFOR) recently asked the question: What will it take to make sustainable palm oil the norm?

This is also a question that NGOs ask. And when they do, it’s a loaded question. It is directed at western companies and policy makers. It goes hand in hand with assumptions that:

  1. Oil palm growers are a large, homogenous group.
  2. Oil palm growers are mostly part of large corporations.
  3. Everyone everywhere considers environmental sustainability to be the No. 1 priority.
  4. Western developed markets are the only markets that matter.
  5. ‘Sustainable’ means all aspects of sustainability – including poverty reduction – are covered.

Anyone who has a basic understanding of palm oil production and palm oil markets knows that none of these assumptions are true. But there is such great misunderstanding in the debate over palm oil that western NGOs have been able to move it in the opposite direction.

Consider how the NGOs are pushing for tighter, more expensive standards that are completely out of reach for small farmers, and which exclude them from supply chains.

The most egregious example of this is the ‘zero deforestation’ traceability model. This was the model that resulted in Unilever having to cut 80% of its smallholder suppliers from its network.

What this underlines is that most of the NGO arguments around sustainability are simply a string of western moral arguments about the environment. These have little to do with balanced perspectives or producing strong social and economic outcomes on the ground.

The CIFOR research bears out these fallacies – but don’t expect NGOs and campaign groups to leap on the findings.

Take this from the report’s executive summary in relation to uptake of certified sustainable palm oil and ‘zero deforestation’ commitments by major companies:

‘… oil palm growers are a diverse group, operating in a range of contexts; this means that current high profile signs of change by large multinational companies may not be representative of the entire sector.’

Or on the importance of sustainability among smallholder growers:

‘In regions such as Sumatra with long-established oil palm sectors, the number of independent smallholder farmers is growing rapidly. These smallholders have access to an escalating number of independent mills, which offer competitive pricing opportunities. These mills rely heavily on fresh fruit bunches purchased on the open market and often do not have corporate purchasing policies or checks in place for legality and sustainability concerns.’

And on the importance of western markets:

‘…growers are catering to rapidly growing import markets in China and India, which place much less focus on environmental and social principles, compared to western markets.’

More than 190 countries met in Paris in December 2015 on the occasion of the United Nations Climate Change Conference and reached a deal to address the issue of climate change. As always, forests and emissions from deforestation received attention throughout the conference.

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The 28 countries that make up the European Union (EU28) imported more than 7 million tonnes of palm oil in 2014. This represented about 70% of all oils and fats imported by the economic bloc.

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Independent oil palm smallholders can look forward to affiliating their holdings to the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification standard, launched by the government in January.

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Wetlands International, a European NGO, has received significant press in Malaysia and around the world in claiming that Malaysia's longer term ecological and economic prospects are threatened by the establishment of agricultural plantations, particularly on delta and peatland areas.

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