I became aware of the environmental impacts of the conversion of forests to oil palm several years ago, when large numbers of orangutans were suddenly being reported in distressed situations throughout Kalimantan, Indonesia. These orangutans were often the victims of severe human-wildlife conflict, having been targeted as “pests” in the newly-planted oil palm plantations in the region around the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation’s Nyaru Menteng Project, who rescued hundreds of them. The graphic images of these orangutans were seen around the world, and prompted international outrage at the situation. The orangutan became the symbol of the environmental impact of large-scale monoculture developed with little regard to sustainability.

Since that time, I have been heavily involved in the issue of palm oil, helping to initiate the Palm Oil Working Group of the Ape Alliance and the Palm Oil Action Group in Australia, and serving on several working groups to develop solutions with the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). In doing so, I learned a great deal about the complexity of the issues, and this continuous learning process guides my position.

First, I think everyone can agree that palm oil is here to stay, whether we like it or not. It is a commodity used in countless applications the world over, and there will always be a market. Given this, I believe it is our duty to do all we can to ensure that the palm oil that is produced is produced in the most sustainable way possible. Calling for a boycott of all palm oil in places like the EU or America would have negligible impact on the production of it, as the greatest take-up is from countries like India and China, who have less insistence for sustainability. Better we develop a demand for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, because only if there is a demand, will producers take the effort to move towards certification. And while no monoculture could ever be considered truly sustainable, I think we must consider that there is a spectrum of sustainability, and sustainable palm oil (for example that which is not grown as a result of forest clearance) is an infinitely better option than non-sustainable palm oil. We also must remember that palm oil is the highest-yielding edible oilseed crop, with yields nine times that of other oilseeds like soya and rapeseed. If we were to replace palm oil with other oilseed crops in order to meet worldwide demand, then we will have to be prepared to have at least nine times as much land given over to grow these crops. And the social and environmental impacts will be multiplied.

Second, because we had the luck to be born into a developed country, I believe we need to acknowledge the right of lesser-developed countries to develop. We simply have no right to tell a country like Indonesia to forgo economic development, but we can help to steer that development in a sustainable direction. Many millions of people world-wide have employment in the palm oil industry, and although issues of low pay for some of these workers remain, more and more companies are becoming certified, thereby ensuring fair conditions and wages for their employees.

While far from perfect, the RSPO is proving effective, as now over 1 million hectares of palm oil has been certified. The spirit of the RSPO is to have a multi-stakeholder approach to addressing the issues of sustainability, and as such, the RSPO is only as strong as the participation of these stakeholders. I encourage more NGOs to become members of the RSPO and to become part of this journey to more sustainable palm oil. Cooperation between the industry and the NGOs can make a real difference. For example, in Kalimantan, this kind of cooperation has resulted in a sharp decline in the number of orangutans in need of rescue by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in recent years.

The responsibility for the addressing the issues surrounding palm oil lie with all of us: consumers, industry, government and NGOs.

Michelle DesiletsMichelle Desilets is Executive Director of the Orangutan Land Trust, an organisation that seeks to ensure the long-term survival of orangutans in the wild by securing remaining habitat. She is a key player in the campaign for sustainable palm oil. Michelle was Founder and Chief Executive of Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation UK which supports the rescue and rehabilitation of orangutans.



See Saving Orangutans Through Habitat Protection: An Interview With Michelle Desilets

A version of this article first appeared on www.betterpalmoil.org/

Main image: By Daniel Kleeman via flickr