OIL'S NOT WELL
Can India produce palm oil with little impact on environment?
SINCE THE 1840s, when the oil-rich fruit was proved useful in the production of soap and later as a lubricant for steam engines, palm oil’s rise has been replete with controversies. In April last year, the European Parliament proposed a ban on palm oil, which it imports to mix in vehicular fuel, by 2021. Though the ban has now been deferred till 2030, following an outcry by producers and exporters of the oil and threats of trade wars, at the heart of the proposed ban was the massive ecological costs associated with oil palm plantations.
The Southeast Asian region, which produces 85 per cent of the world’s palm oil, has four distinct biodiversity hotspots. Indonesia, which contributes 64 per cent of this produce is in an ecological mess—54 per cent of its oil palm plantations stand on what once used to be thick rainforests, shows a July 2016 analysis pulished in plos One. In Sumatra and Kalimantan regions, forests are still being destroyed for plantations at a steady rate of 117,000 hectares (ha) a year, says a study published in Land Use Policy in December 2017. While photographs of Sumatran orangutans fleeing from decimated forests have periodically garnered global sympathy, the impact of deforestation is much more pervasive. Indigenous groups have been turfed off their land to make room for plantations. At least three plant and eight animal species, endemic to the region, are now extinct. Enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, released from deforestation and peatland destruction, had catapulted Indonesia in 2015 to surpass the US in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, sparking worldwide alarm. Though plantations support one-fifth of the fauna harboured by a primary forest, oil palm fares the worst when compared with rubber, cocoa and coffee.
Environmental groups have constantly attacked companies like Unilever, Nestle and Cargill and several governments for driving the palm oil expansion. And this has yielded some result. Corporations and governments have changed their policies in recent decades and taken steps to make palm oil sustainable. In 2004, a group of multinational companies, manufacturers and retailers came together to set up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
(rspo). Companies who signed up with the initiative can get their products certified as sustainable and sell at a premium. Currently, some 32 companies running over 130 mills in Indonesia have rspo certification. Concurrently, Indonesia launched its own sustainable palm oil system, referred to as
ispo. In 2016, the country declared a moratorium on new expansion of oil palm. Toeing the line, Malaysia has also introduced sustainability standards for plantations in the country.