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Can palm oil ever be a good thing?

World Vision
19 January 2015 by Vanessa Forrest
Can palm oil ever be a good thing?

The palm oil industry is known to destroy the habitat of orang-utans - but it's also a vital source of income for local communities. Photo by Vanessa Forrest

Recently I volunteered in an orang-utan sanctuary in Borneo. As well as those rescued from the pet trade and entertainment industry, sanctuaries are home to many orang-utans that have been left homeless by deforestation to make way for the palm oil industry.

My time there was equally fulfilling and heartbreaking. They are amazing creatures and you cannot help but be struck by their intelligence and ingenuity. I gained so much from my interactions with them but I was always aware that their lack of freedom was as a result of human activities.

Before going to Borneo I had seen campaigns and media about the negative effects of the palm oil industry and was appalled by the the environmental destruction and loss of habitat for animals such as orang-utans. Much lesser known, is that forced and child labour can also occur in palm oil production.

A palm oil factory in Borneo. Photo by Vanessa Forrest.

A palm oil factory in Borneo. Photo by Vanessa Forrest.

The reach of this destruction is incredible. Palm oil is found in thousands of everyday products. From cleaning products, to toiletries like shampoos, conditioners, cleansers and moisturisers to food items such as chocolate, cakes and cookies. It is hiding in such a wide range of products (about 10% of all household products) and takes a really concerted effort to locate as it is most often simply listed as “vegetable oil” . This is a particularly broad and unhelpful phrase that can mean anything from local sustainably sourced canola oil to palm oil from an illegal plantation or anything in between.

Fortunately certified sustainable palm oil is now available. Consumers can look for goods that proudly use RSPO certified palm oil – but the number of companies using this more sustainable source is still very limited.

Seeing the extent of the destruction this industry has caused, I expected that the local community would share my outrage for the situation. So I was surprised that most of the locals I talked to seemed to have a positive view of palm oil. Many people I met told me their own story about palm oil and how planting their small piece of land had helped them to support their family. For many this hadn’t previously been possible as employment opportunities on Borneo are very limited, even for those with a good education.

This was reinforced by labels on supermarket item announcing that that they were “Proudly made from Borneo palm oil”. I was initially surprised to see these labels and hear such positive perceptions about palm oil as it was in such contrast to the views I’d been presented at home.

So where’s the balance between these two competing perspectives?

Using sustainable palm oil means that there is still an opportunity for people to earn an income through its production but without the environmental destruction that can occur with unregulated production, or the risks of forced or child labour.

At the moment about 15% of palm oil is sustainably sourced, but increased demand on companies to be more transparent about their use of palm oil by customers will help increase the demand for more sustainable palm oil. And this in turn will increase the supply of it – meaning more farmers and producers – and the land they live on – will be respected and treated fairly, ensuring a better future for all. People and orang-utans.

Vanessa Forrest

Vanessa Forrest is a Manager of Field Information and Reporting for World Vision Australia.


4 Responses

  • Sheryl Measor says:

    Hi Vanessa. Great to read an article that explains both sides of the story. Well done. I am on a mission to source products that use sustainable palm oil. Thank you. Sheryl Measor

  • Jesse says:

    Actually, the RSPO cannot guarantee that palm oil is produced sustainably. The palm oil industry is very complex, with many subcontractors. There are cases in which the RSPO had to admit that protected rainforest was destroyed for “sustainable” palm oil by subcontractors.

    Furthermore, as long as oil palms on Borneo depend on huge amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, and as long as drainage causes erosion, water pollution and drying-out of nearby forests, palm oil is not sustainable, whatever the RSPO claims…

    • TimJ, World Vision team says:

      Thanks for your comment Jesse. At World Vision we agree that the RSPO certification is not as robust as it should be. In recent years we have worked with partners to lobby the RSPO to improve standards, specifically around prohibiting the use of forced and child labour – which I am pleased to say are now included in the RSPO guidelines. Whilst any certification scheme is not a 100% guarantee, at this point in time we believe that RSPO is the most credible assurance available for the upkeep of sustainability practices within the palm oil industry. But as you say, there are many other significant sustainability challenges that remain within the industry as a whole. I have personally doubted that any palm oil can be sustainable because of the environmental impacts it has, but in my blog I wanted to highlight that I felt conflicted by this when I saw how reliant families and communities are on this industry. It made me realise that the solution isn’t as simple as boycotting palm oil, because this could have a long-term adverse affect on the people that rely on this product for their income. It’s a very complex issue that requires a multi-faceted response – and whilst there are still significant improvements to be made to RSPO, other certifications and the industry as a whole – at this point, I believe if a company or consumer is going to buy palm oil, RSPO is the most credible sustainability certification available at the moment. -Vanessa Forrest.

  • Maggy says:

    Very interesting article, Vanessa.
    . It’s good to hear from somebidy who has actually been there and doesn’t just rely on information from other media sources.

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