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.’


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