Palm oil production: problems and future sustainability

By Joseph J. Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK

Palm oil, which is a type of vegetable oil that comes from the oil palm tree Elaeis guineensis, is big business! I challenge you to look in your home and fail to find a foodstuff, cleaning product, or toiletry product that contains it (see this guide to products containing palm oil). It has attracted much attention from environmental campaigners for several years, with a particularly high-profile set of protests against Unilever back in 2008, and there has been much publicity about its negative environmental impacts for some time (e.g. a report from the Independent in 2009). The story continues to reoccur in the popular press, with The Guardian recently reporting on a Greenpeace report (published March 3rd 2016) that claims 13 big brands (out of 14) cannot guarantee that the palm oil in their products is not contributing towards deforestation. The companies reviewed were: Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Ferrero, General Mills, Ikea, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez, Nestle, Orkla, PepsiCo, P & G and Unilever. Ferrero was the exception as it ‘purchases palm oil volumes that are both fully traceable to plantation level and fully RSPO Segregated’.

Palm oil has penetrated global markets (including food, toiletries, cleaning products, and biofuel) because it is efficient (in terms of the amount of land required), versatile, and relatively cheap compared to other vegetable oils. It has been described as a ‘golden crop’, lifting many poor farmers from poverty, but it continues to cause major environmental problems, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are two of the main producers (BBC, 2015). Deforestation creates space for the palm oil plantations and this directly threatens ‘charismatic’ species (e.g. orangutans, rhinos, tigers, elephants), their associated ecosystems, and the many less charismatic species therein (WWF).

There are currently a number of organisations and initiatives that are trying to increase the sustainability of palm oil production, to ensure that this product is profitable now, and in the future, without devastating the natural environment. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which came into operation in 2004, aims to put the global palm oil supply chain on a sustainable path. Currently, 21% of palm oil is RSPO certified globally. The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), meanwhile, aims to support the RSPO by implementing existing standards and building upon these through ‘creative innovations’ and local, corporate (e.g. Danone, Ferrero), and NGO (e.g. WWF, Greenpeace, Orangutan Land Trust) partnerships. POIG recently released an updated set of criteria (published March 2016). Therefore, whilst there is clearly still some distance to go beyond this figure of 21%, progress is very much being made. Consumer awareness is also vital towards these efforts.

District Kunak, Sabah: A oilpalm plantation along the Malaysia Federal Route 13 with different stadiums of oil palm growing.

District Kunak, Sabah: A oilpalm plantation along the Malaysia Federal Route 13 with different stadiums of oil palm growing. © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0. Available at: (accessed 14th Mar 2016).

Palm oil production often occurs at a local scale. A recent article in The Geographical Journal reported on the diversity of small-scale oil palm cultivation in the Malaysian part of Borneo (Soda et al., 2015). The article provides a case study of SJ Village in the Bintulu District in Sarawak and considers land-use changes from 2004 to 2013 using land-use maps derived from high-resolution satellite data. The oil palm trees grown here are irregularly dispersed and not in large plantations, which is quite a contrast to the sources of much palm oil. The authors identify that this method of harvesting palm oil may seem inefficient and irrational compared to plantations, but show why it is in fact very sensible. This is because only 26.9% (14% cultivated by the local villagers and the rest by outsiders) of the land in this area in 2013 was found to be used for oil palm, which means that the area’s economy is relatively resilient to declines in palm oil prices. The rest of the land area consisted of: young secondary forest (38.3%), old secondary and primary forest (29.1%), and rubber (0.14%), while the remainder (5.63%) was not visible because of cloud cover. The villagers regard old secondary forest and lands with poor access as ‘backup space’ for planting rubber trees and rice if the price of palm oil were to fall.

However, the authors also discuss potential future land conflicts within this complex system of multiple actors, whereby villagers ‘may have no option but to plant oil palms to secure their land’ if plantations continue to expand in the area. This could impact the mosaicked spatial pattern that currently dominates this village landscape and potentially threaten forests (primary and secondary) and future livelihoods. Outsiders also have an increasing influence in the area, including farmers from other villages (they marry into the community) and urban Chinese who lease rural lands. This can take some control away from the local people and threaten the economic security and rural subsistence that they have developed over many years. Maintaining the diverse landscape of mosaicked oil palm trees and forest requires ‘balanced relationships’ among the diverse set of stakeholders.

The importance of local socio-economic resilience and sustainability cannot be overstressed: maintaining a spatially diverse landscape is regarded as superior to palm oil plantations by being ecologically, economically, and socially more sustainable. Hopefully such sustainability can be developed alongside conservation objectives by some of the organisations mentioned above, even where large companies and outsiders encroach on local villages. Additionally, landscape diversity should be encouraged in existing plantations, to the advantage of the local communities and wildlife.

References

60-world2 Batty, D. 2008 Unilever targeted in oran-utan protest The Guardian

60-world2 Greenpeace 2016 Cutting deforestation out of palm oil: company scorecard 

60-world2 Hickman, M. 2009 The guilty secrets of pail oil: are you unwittingly contributing to the devastation of the rain forests? Independent

60-world2 Lamb, K. 2016 Leading brands unsure if pal oil in products comes from rainforest land The Guardian 

books_icon Soda, R., Kato, Y. and Hon, J. 2015 The diversity of small-scale oil palm cultivation in Sarawak, Malaysia. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12152.

60-world2 WWF  Which everyday products contain palm oil? 

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