Global — The word came last spring at a climate change conference here.
Unilever, the world’s largest buyer of palm oil, would publicly call for a moratorium on deforestation by Indonesian growers of the coveted oil used in food, soaps, detergents, cosmetics and biofuel. The expansion of oil palm plantations is slowly destroying Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo and the habitat of the endangered Bornean orangutan, environmental activists say.
During the past two decades, an estimated two million acres have been felled annually in Borneo, which Indonesia shares with Malaysia and Brunei, according to the environmental group, Friends of the Earth.
But with Jakarta planning to more than double the acreage of oil palm trees by 2011, activists are scrambling to form new alliances with the palm oil industry to stave off more destruction. They say the potential deforestation in Borneo – which has one of the world’s largest standing rain forests – amounts to a “climate bomb” in global warming from increased carbon levels released into the atmosphere by fallen trees.
“It’s become obvious that climate change is a much bigger and urgent problem than we thought,” said Jan-Kees Vis, head of Unilever’s sustainable agriculture program.
Greenpeace and Unilever hope their new coalition will eventually limit the expansion of palm oil plantations to already degraded and abandoned agricultural lands, forestalling the need to clear additional forest. “Even the most optimistic forecasts of global demand could be met from existing land under cultivation,” said Vis.
Although many conservationists have applauded Unilever’s pledge to purchase 100 percent sustainable palm oil by 2015, some question the company’s motives in an industry rife with competition.
Is it a ploy to deflect attention from a damaging Greenpeace report last April linking Unilever to continued deforestation in Borneo? Will Unilever use its position as head of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, an association of 250 palm oil companies from the United States, Europe and Asia that represents about half the world market, to encourage other members to follow suit?
“Our fear is that a number of the (palm oil) suppliers are using it (Unilever’s call for a moratorium) to greenwash their operations,” said Andy Tate, Greenpeace biodiversity manager. Environmental activists also hope substantive reforms won’t be delayed as negotiations drag on with other members of the association to initiate sustainable policies. To date, 30 members have followed Unilever’s lead, but only three – the cosmetic chain, The Body Shop, and supermarket chains Sainsbury of Great Britain and Albert Heijin of the Netherlands – have pledged to begin buying only 100 percent sustainable palm oil.
“Those companies need to … increase pressure on their suppliers to stop expanding palm oil operations into forest areas and to support the moratorium,” said Tate. “Contracts need to be canceled with producers who will not play ball.”
Such efforts, however, will not be easy.
Experts say it requires close coordination with scientists and environmentalists in making the case to oil palm growers to begin selective breeding techniques that would significantly raise yields, increase seed production and accept satellite mappings of forested lands. Moreover, the Indonesian government must enact a conservation assessment, Vis says.
“We urge the Indonesian government to take stock of the” value of forested areas, “and the carbon value in those forests,” said Vis, who has been the association’s president since the group’s creation in 2003.
In November, small-plantation owners in Indonesia and Malaysia objected to Unilever’s moratorium proposal at an annual association meeting and prevented it from coming up for a vote. And Anton Apriyantono, Indonesia’s minister of agriculture, says his government “has its own program of preserving our forests.”
Vis says he is mindful of violations of the association’s environmental monitoring guidelines, including the creation of new palm oil plantations in carbon-rich peat forests and systematic clear cutting beyond what is permitted officially. Consequently, Unilever pushed through a measure requiring association members to publicly state when they will certify production or buy from certified producers. The measure is expected to be approved by the group’s executive board early this year.
In December, the first shipment of sustainable palm oil arrived in Europe. Petra Sprick, spokeswoman for a German edible oil industry association called OVID, predicts 3 million tons of sustainable palm oil will be sold worldwide by the end of the year.
Greenpeace’s Tate, meanwhile, cautions Unilever not to take his group’s endorsement for granted.
“If we think they (Unilever) are not delivering, we would tell them that in no uncertain terms,” said Tate. “We recognize at the moment they and the rest of the industry need to go further.”
Palm oil, which is derived from the fruit of the Arecaceae Elaeis oil palm, is used in food, soaps, detergents, cosmetics, plastics and increasingly in biofuel as an alternative to gasoline. In recent years, it has surpassed soybean oil as the most widely produced vegetable oil in the world.
In West Africa, palm oil has long been used as a cooking oil. In fact, it was so coveted by King Ghezo of Dahomey that he forbade his subjects from cutting down oil palms in 1856.
Today, 80 percent of palm oil is produced by small farmers – 1.5 million and 500,000 in Indonesia and Malaysia, respectively. The rising demand for palm oil has caused millions of acres of rain forests in those two nations to be cleared to create plantations.
Environmental groups say degraded forest lands in Indonesia and Malaysia have caused illegal hunting, release of carbon emissions, forest fires and habitat destruction of such endangered species as orangutans in Borneo, the Sumatran tiger and Asian rhinoceros.
Nevertheless, many consumers, retailers and companies fail to see palm oil’s negative effect on the environment, said Adam Harrison, a senior policy officer for World Wildlife Fund.
“The most obvious (problem) is that palm oil is used in small quantities among many others in a huge range of products,” said Harrison. “It does not appear – other than in some margarines – as a pure substance, and so it does not have the same profile as timber.”