This change of attitude comes as a surprise because the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI) has for years, talked tough against what they call black campaigns by foreign environmental groups. When the biggest Indonesian palm oil producers formed a group that pledged to remove deforestation from their operations, it was labelled as an “attack on Indonesia’s sovereign rights” and subsequent government pressure ended the green ambitions behind IPOP.

ROBERT HII • Smallholder palm plantation

Tough talk includes this unforgettable statement by the Vice President who said in response to complaints from its neighboring countries about the annual haze in Indonesia:

For 11 months, they enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us

What caused this change in attitude? Was it the threat of palm oil being banned from EU biofuel use or the continued NGO campaigns that inspired it? Or was it the strong progress of their main competitor in the Malaysian industry towards certifying Malaysian palm oil as sustainable?

It’s most likely a combination of the proposed bans on palm oil use in biofuels and Malaysia’s progress in certification. The European market may not be the biggest for palm oil today but that could change soon.

If we look at the recent pledges by Norway, France and the UK to ban gas-powered cars in the near future, the market for biofuels in Europe will be massive. The Europeans however, have indicated that it is not good enough that their emissions are clean. They also want their consumption to save forests on top of that. Whatever the reasons might be for Indonesia’s change in attitude, this could start a race to the top which will only bring good things on the ground but what can be expected out of making pledges to the UNDP? It is true that global sustainability and poverty alleviation is of great importance at the UN but the UNDP would not have much influence on whether palm oil is used for biofuels.

The need for poverty alleviation is obviously urgent in Indonesia where a 2014 estimatehad 40% of Indonesians as impoverished people living on $2 a day. I can’t even buy a decent coffee with that. The palm oil industry has used this fact in recent years to justify expansions, especially in projects where small farmers are added to increase volume to industrial operations.

However, the environmental impact from hundreds of thousands of small oil palm farmers should not be underestimated. Unlike corporate plantations that can spare a bit of their plantations for conservation and use better farming practices for higher yields, the small farmer is likely to focus only on what they have to do to maximize harvests today. Hopefully the new funds provided by the UNDP to develop palm oil sustainably in Indonesia will find ways to incorporate environmental factors into smallholder farms

What is more important though, is the will of all levels of governments in Indonesia to implement sustainable development. Without a well defined plan that balances the need for development and conservation, the multiple levels of conflicts which have plagued the industry will continue. Increasing productivity on developed areas may contribute to produce the 40 million tons by 2020 target set by the Indonesian government but there shouldn’t be any doubt that more peatlands or forests will need to be developed.


Papua province as an emerging model for sustainable palm oil

Papua, which was not part of the earlier palm oil expansions in Sumatra or Kalimantan, is the current hotspot for the conservation versus development issue. Unlike what has happened in the other provinces, there are indications of better land use in the province’s bold plans to protect 83% of its land area as natural habitat. More interesting in this emerging model of sustainable development was the revocation of eleven licenses issued to palm oil companies that were deemed by the local government as “having little benefit to local people.” On the other hand, Korindo, an Indonesian-Korean company which is the subject of criticism for its deforestation in Papua continues to operate by virtue of its contributions to the local economy.

Poverty alleviation of local peoples maybe good justification for deforestation but what the provincial government needs is a land use plan that lays out in clear terms, how sustainability actions in Papua will benefit both the local peoples and protect forests as demanded by the potential consumers of their products.

The lack of progress in Indonesia’s first attempt at jurisdictional certification in Seruyandistrict should not discourage the provincial government from achieving yet another first. It would be truly amazing if this most poverty stricken province can show what a turn around in the Indonesian palm oil industry should look like.

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