ALERT’S first debate focused on the conservation of boreal forests. For its second debate, two highly qualified teams—one with long-term expertise in Equatorial Africa, the other in Southeast Asia—lock horns over the vexing issue of oil palm.
The key question is this: Oil palm has advanced like a tsunami across tropical Asia, and now is showing indications that it could do similarly in Africa and Latin America. Can the tsunami be stopped? Can nature conservation survive alongside it?
Our first perspective is led by longstanding ALERT members Joshua Linder and Thomas Struhsaker, along with Carolyn Jost Robison, all prominent environmental researchers:
Palm Oil and the Fate of Tropical Forest Biodiversity
The expansion of large-scale, industrial oil palm developments has promoted rapid forest loss in Indonesia and Malaysia. Agribusinesses have recently turned their attention to Africa and Latin America, fomenting the conflict between conservation and human-rights communities on the one hand and oil palm growers and national governments on the other.
A report by the Great Apes Survival Partnership, or GRASP, a conservation program of the United Nations, provides a great-ape-centered perspective for reconciling this conflict.
Based on studies in Southeast Asia, the GRASP plan argues that saying ‘no’ to oil palm is unlikely to yield positive conservation outcomes. Instead, GRASP recommends that the conservation community collaborate with oil palm growers to identify suitable locations for plantations and implement best-management practices that limit the important indirect effects, such as wildlife hunting, of large-scale oil palm projects.
Such a proactive approach is commendable, in theory. However, if implemented in Africa, we believe the GRASP plan will come at the expense of biodiversity, food security, local livelihoods, and human rights. Here are our specific concerns with GRASP’s recommendations:
Don’t Just Focus on Apes
A strategy that focuses solely on great apes (gorillas, chimps, bonobos, orangutans), like GRASP’s report, belies the negative impacts of industrial oil palm production on whole ecosystems.
Such an approach may not adequately protect other elements of biodiversity, and also does not account for the unique environmental and political histories of the human communities inhabiting suitable oil palm lands.
Furthermore, while the oil palm industry touts its societal benefits, GRASP acknowledges that it is difficult to determine whether the benefits claimed by the industry outweigh its costs in terms of social conflicts, loss of ecosystem services, and reduced food security. We therefore question how a United Nations program can defend and collaborate on the expansion of oil palm plantations when the socioeconomic and health risks to local people are so poorly understood.
Are Palm Growers ‘Responsible’?
GRASP recommends that conservationists collaborate with “responsible” oil palm growers to establish plantations in the forest “frontier” adjacent to priority ape habitat and enforce best-management practices to reduce negative environmental outcomes in and around the plantation-concession area.
Unfortunately, the plan does not describe how an agribusiness becomes “responsible” nor how such responsibility will be overseen. Furthermore, intentionally locating oil palm plantations on forested land, contiguous to priority great ape habitat, is a dangerous strategy.
As with the effects of extractive industries, the development of plantation agriculture in forests results in infrastructure expansion and local increases in human population density. This will undoubtedly intensify hunting for wild meat in adjacent forests. In many cases, plantations will be established near to protected areas—often priority ape habitats—where the synergistic effects of increased bushmeat hunting and large-scale forest conversion may render existing conservation efforts ineffective.
Don't Write Off Conservation Campaigns
The GRASP plan is critical of “anti-palm oil campaigns” led by conservationists. However, evidence shows that scientifically grounded campaigns that oppose large-scale agricultural land leases do lead to positive conservation outcomes.
For example, a multinational group of scientists and conservation groups joined local communities in Cameroon to prevent the American-based agribusiness Herakles Farms from obtaining a 99-year lease of over 70,000 hectares of land for oil palm development in a biodiversity hotspot inhabited by thousands of people.
Herakles Farms was a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry-led group attempting to promote sustainable palm-oil production. Herakles also had a sustainability guide, had conducted environmental and social impact assessments, and had situated its plantation near priority great ape habitat.
However, Herakles’ assessments were invalidated by allegations from conservation scientists that Herakles repeatedly violated RSPO guidelines and Cameroonian laws, and failed to follow the process of Free Prior and Informed Consent with local communities. Such campaigns are one of the few ways that the conservation community can influence an industry that has historically had little regard for biodiversity conservation.
Contrary to the GRASP plan, we do not accept that industrial oil palm expansion in the African tropical forest zone is inevitable and that to protect biodiversity we must acquiesce to the industry. Rather, we agree with the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, who argued that we need to examine whether land leased to agribusinesses could, instead, be used more productively, in ways that reduce environmental impacts and socioeconomic risks.
The conservation, development, and human-rights communities must confront the palm oil industry and be prepared to:
a) halt or limit conversion of intact forests into oil palm plantations
b) invest resources to oversee the industry and to investigate and publicize the social and environmental impacts of oil palm plantations
c) provide legal counsel to locally affected communities, who lack the expertise to effectively negotiate with agribusinesses, and
d) work with governments and local people to develop socially and environmentally responsible strategies for economic growth
In a time when we should be prioritizing the environment and human rights over ecologically and socially damaging economic development, the GRASP plan is more aligned with agro-imperialism and collaborating with an industry awash with human rights and environmental abuses.
We suggest that before GRASP commits itself to a global strategy for oil palm, it first evaluates its recommendations in Indonesia and Malaysia and then more closely examines how parts of their strategy could be adapted for Africa.
The rebuttal is penned by prominent authors of the GRASP report, including ALERT member Erik Meijaard as well as Marc Ancrenaz and Serge Wich:
Oil Palm Strategies: A Response from GRASP
We agree with Linder et al.’s views that our Palm Oil Paradox report, by focusing on great apes, neither represents all elements of tropical biological diversity nor the full range of social and political factors involved. As in Southeast Asia, great apes in Africa overlap only partly with areas suitable for oil palm development.
Great apes, however, remain powerful symbols of the fight against unsustainable oil palm practices, and could play this role in parts of Africa where their ranges overlap with areas of high oil palm potential.
Great apes can also be icons for more-sustainable oil palm. Such an aspiration has brought together palm oil and nongovernmental organizations to form the PONGO Alliance in Southeast Asia, where joint efforts are ongoing to improve practices in the oil palm industry.
A major point of controversy—which we recognized when we developed our Palm Oil Paradox report—is our proposal to locate responsible oil palm companies on the forest frontier. The idea is that this could help to stabilize the frontier and prevent deforestation—which would arguably have happened regardless, especially if no coordinated and responsible landscape plan was in place.
Our unpublished analyses show that, at least in Borneo, “responsible” oil palm has caused much less deforestation than has oil palm that is not certified by the RSPO.
RSPO-certified concessions mainly develop on already-degraded lands, which leaves unscrupulous companies to develop near the forest frontier. Out of 815,000 hectares of land held in RSPO-cerfiied concessions, just 8.9 percent was deforested between 2000 and 2015. However, the deforestation rate was about twice as fast, 18 percent, over the same period in non-certified concessions, which are very extensive in Borneo (9.6 million hectares).
Thus, responsible oil palm is not perfect, but it is a lot better than uncertified oil palm, which causes deforestation in the most critical areas for conservation. We are currently seeing some individual oil palm plantations in Borneo setting aside more than 25 percent of their concessions for conservation.
For example, one company in Indonesian Borneo contains 150 orangutans that are currently safer than most other orangutans on Borneo.
We reiterate that our report states clearly that oil palm plantations should not be developed in priority great ape habitat, and that “no-go” areas for oil palm must be identified and classified.
Protecting the Frontier?
Linder and colleagues may assume that halting oil palm in the African forest frontier means the frontier will be safe. But we cannot be sure what will happen on the frontier if no oil palm or other plantations are developed.
What we do know is that in Southeast Asia, any lands that are connected to the global-trade network through roads or other infrastructure are deforested through fires, land speculation, and small-scale agriculture unless some strong and coordinated form of management is in place.
This management could include protected areas under government or community control, or well-managed timber concessions. Well-managed oil palm plantations can also partly fulfill this role.
This previous point relates to the belief by Linder and colleagues that oil palm expansion can be stopped. To counter that we ask, is this desirable? Oil palm is a native African crop that produces far more oil than any other oil crop. Given the growing global demand for oils, a prohibition on oil palm would mean the conversion of larger areas of land for oil crops elsewhere.
Linder et al. emphasize the potential for unknown socio-economic risks to local people. We agree that the costs and benefits of deforestation are poorly understood. The reality, however, is that local people in Southeast Asia generally welcome oil palm for its great profitability as a cash crop.
In a recent survey in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, for example, we found that just three villages out of some 75 had rejected oil palm—the remainder had all accepted oil palm companies on their lands.
Our Take-Home Messages
In Southeast Asia we have spent decades fighting oil palm but we have had virtually zero impact on the speed of the industry’s expansion. In our view, the diametrically opposed camps in the oil palm debate have prevented the development of better practices in the industry.
On Borneo and Sumatra we are now nearly too late to make significant changes to how oil palm is managed. In most African countries and in Latin America and parts of tropical Asia, we still have options to make important improvements.
What we call for is better planning and management in an industry that many governments and their electorates welcome. National-planning processes should ensure that oil palm development is directed towards areas with the least impact on food security, away from floodplains, and in areas where its socioeconomic benefits and environmental and social costs are most balanced.
Such decision-making and its implementation are challenging and require the engagement of all relevant stakeholders, including responsible oil palm companies.