OIL'S NOT WELL

Can In­dia pro­duce palm oil with lit­tle im­pact on en­vi­ron­ment?

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

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.

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