Affirming A Cause; Pandemic or Not

Multiple phases of the Movement Control Order (MCO) have passed and Malaysia is finally and slowly easing back into life. Many sectors are now focusing on economic recovery post COVID-19. There will be massive economic disruption and job losses but we do need to remain focused on what we can control.


As we have seen, like many industries, palm oil is not exempt from the impacts caused by the pandemic – a slowing down of production coupled with a shortage of manpower and disruption to supply chains. United Plantations Berhad has warned that palm oil production could be under threat in the second half of 2020 as present lockdown policies and travel restrictions will prevent guest workers from seeking job opportunities in the Malaysian plantation industry.


These are not to be taken lightly, especially since palm oil is essential to many products we use on a daily basis and vital to Malaysia’s economy, representing about 4% of the country’s GDP.


Smallholder in Perak, Malaysia (image courtesy of Wild Asia)

For this reason, we should strive to make the industry sustainable. Not just for industry players, brands, and retailers but also for our society at large. Whilst advocating for greater adoption of sustainable palm oil production methods, we are working hard to educate the public, clear misconceptions, and help consumers understand that palm oil can be sustainable.


To many, palm oil production is often linked to negative effects on the environment with many activists urging for a boycott of the industry. However, that might not be the solution. “It is not palm oil that harms orangutans, nor other agricultural crops that damage the environment. It is unsustainable agricultural production that impacts the environment, affecting natural ecosystems, reducing wildlife habitats, emitting greenhouse gases, and polluting freshwater,” says Dr. Henry Chan, WWF-Malaysia Conservation Director.

Boycotting will also affect the livelihoods of the 250,299 independent smallholders cultivating about 16.8% (979,892 ha) of the country’s total oil palm area (based on MPOB’s 2018 figures).


To that end, I want to outline how those of us at home can do our part to push for more sustainable palm oil production.


Back to Basics

If you’re looking to learn more about the industry, WWF’s Sustainable Agriculture page on palm oil and MPOC Palm Oil page are good resources of information on the industry. I’d also encourage you to check out the RSPO Sustainability College where you can learn more about some of the latest developments to our standards and practice due diligence from the comfort of your own desk.


Support the members and companies that are part of the cause

Let’s be honest. There are companies that show initiative and then there are companies that are lagging behind and hope it goes unnoticed. I’m not advocating you spend hours or even a long time in the grocery aisle reading labels of packages to find out who is using sustainable palm oil, but I do think you could use this time to reach out to your favourite brands and ask them to source and use certified sustainable palm oil. Or even better, you could thank a company for using sustainable palm oil. Many NGOs publish scorecards, like the WWF scorecard, that can guide you to make good purchasing decisions when things return to normal. The new Shared Responsibility rules also give the RSPO the ability to nudge these laggards.


Support your local NGOs and zoos

Many of the RSPO’s zoo members are struggling right now from the impact of the closure and declining attendance in the preceding weeks and months. This was already the case for Zoo Negara who recorded a steep decline in visitors from 2015 onwards pre COVID-19. Many people aren’t aware that our zoo members help drive spending on conservation in palm oil-producing countries, such as Malaysia. For example, Oregon Zoo is working with HUTAN on programs in Sabah, Malaysia. In 2017, the RSPO signed an MOU with the World Aquarium and Zoo Association (WAZA) to further our shared goals and objectives regarding the transformation of markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm. Every ringgit counts for these organisations. Perhaps now is the time to purchase that membership.


Keep up the pressure for climate action

Climate change is not going to go away because we all stay at home for a few months. The damage we have done to our planet is lasting and it will take the collective action of government, civil society and the public at large to achieve meaningful change. And, even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic, climate change must not take a back seat.


Moving forward, even though COVID-19 may potentially impede the growth of sustainable palm oil, RSPO seeks to not only create more brand awareness and improve current perceptions of the industry but we’re also committed to highlighting that sustainable agriculture practices are the only way to maintain economic performance while improving the environment and lives of farming communities. Humans have driven unsustainable farming practices, but we can also drive sustainable change and protect our forests and communities.


Adapting but remaining transparent and relevant

From our perspective, we are in close communication with RSPO members to remind them of their social obligations to workers during this difficult time, such as job security, fair wages, or the provision of healthy and adequate food, among other social requirements outlined in our certification standard. Additionally, we must ensure that the smallholders who support the industry by selling their fresh fruit bunches to mills are paid on a timely basis, so that they may support their families and communities, and if there are shortages of vital and important foodstuffs or supplies, members must take immediate action to address these issues.


We all have a role to play in making sustainable palm oil the norm, be it by supporting a member of the RSPO or urging your favourite brands to become one. In an ideal world, organisations like the RSPO wouldn’t need to exist - companies producing commodities would operate responsibly, governments would have the best possible laws in place to protect workers, communities, and biodiversity, and companies would pay a premium and support smallholder to make a decent living.


This ideal world doesn’t exist yet. So, let’s use this time and work together to see if we can make it happen in the very near future.


The writer is the Director of Strategic Stakeholder Relations at RSPO, Salahudin Yaacob, The above comments and opinions in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Asia Palm Oil Magazine’s view.

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