December, 2015 in Issue 4 - 2015
Despite these comments from various campaigners, there are still some findings in the draft report that the industry needs to take seriously, and which have been raised by the MPOC.
First, the conversion threshold throughout the study is not entirely consistent. The measurements used for carbon biomass throughout the study vary, depending on both the number and the measure used. Moreover, the practicalities of measuring of root biomass are not taken into account.
Second, the draft report indicates that any planting on peatlands is forbidden. However, this doesn’t take into account the possibility of planting on degraded peatland and there is potentially a net benefit.
This leads to a bigger question: if there is degraded peat, how much should the negative impact of simply leaving it – potentially leading to further negative environmental impacts – be taken into account? The practical costs of peatland restoration are something that should be taken into account. This can be said of environmental remediation more broadly.
Third, there is something close to a prescription for planting to take place almost entirely on grassland and scrubland, but the fact of the matter is that these land classifications are generally absent from tropical developing countries.
Finally, the submission raises the possibility of perverse outcomes. One of the main problems in placing restrictions on how oil palm – and oil palm only – may be planted is that it simply leaves the door open for other crops that for whatever reason environmentalists don’t see as being as controversial.
This will mean that the land in question will still suffer precisely the carbon loss that environmental campaigners are trying to avoid. This also leads the possibility that alternative crops – such as banana plantations – will not provide benefits to local communities in the same way. This may be because the type of crop requires sufficient volumes, transport infrastructure or agricultural extension services that aren’t available to local smallholders.
A simple thought experiment illustrates this: if the world banned palm oil tomorrow, what would happen? Farmers and companies would plant something else. And it would in all likelihood provide lower social and economic benefits to the communities and countries in which it is planted.
This is ultimately the danger of the HCS study and others like it: that environmental concerns and subsequent measures neither solve the environmental problem, nor provide a social and economic benefit.
Dr Yusof Basiron