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Sustainable Palm Oil: Making a Difference in Time of Uncertainty

As most of the country and the rest of the world are under some sort of lockdown, we’re all facing disruptions and restrictions to our daily lives, not to mention the unprecedented changes that we will face as a society in the future.

We’re already seeing economic disruption and job losses in the region and the near future looks bleak with Indonesia expecting up to 9 million people will fall into poverty and unemployment due to the pandemic. We don’t know how long it will take for things to go back to the way they used to be but as we brace for the new normal and discover what that entails, we must not disregard the progress that we’ve made within the palm oil industry and press ahead with our goal to achieve sustainable palm oil.

Harvest time: A worker gathers oil palm fruit bunches at a plantation in Lampung. Indonesia and Malaysia, the first- and second-largest palm oil producers, have threatened to challenge the European Union via the World Trade Organization if the EU continues to phase out palm oil from transportation fuel. (The Jakarta Post/R. Berto Wedhatama)

Few industries in Indonesia have shown as strong growth as the palm oil industry in the past 20 years, contributing between 1.5 and 2.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The industry also employs 8.4 million people nationwide, from farmers and mill workers to service goods suppliers. With the pandemic expected to slow down the economy and cause key sectors like tourism, F&B and retail to lose billions of dollars, the Indonesian government is expected to rely heavily on agriculture and commodities like palm oil to rebuild the economy.

As the impact of COVID-19 continues to reverberate globally, we should take the time to consider how we can push forward with the important work of making the palm oil sector sustainable and resilient.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a global multi-stakeholder organization for the certification of sustainable palm oil, and we are continuing the work to achieve our vision of making sustainable palm oil the norm, despite difficulties in carrying out certification and audits of plantations in the current circumstances. Pushing on with this work is critical to ensure that standards for sustainable palm oil are upheld – for smallholder farmers who depend on sustainable palm oil for their livelihood, as well as consumers who rely on our certification to make the right choices.

While we work toward navigating this new normal, there are some ways we can start to become a more educated consumer or a desktop-based (for now) sustainable palm oil “activist”.

  • Get the basics right. If you’re looking to learn about the issues of sustainable palm oil and the different efforts being done to achieve 100 percent certified sustainable palm oil in Indonesia and globally, I’d encourage you to check the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) sustainable agriculture page on palm oil. If you’re looking to learn more about RSPO and some of the latest developments and certification processes, the RSPO Sustainability College is a good start.

  • Acknowledge and support the members and companies who care. The reality is that there are companies that show initiative and there are companies that completely lag behind in efforts to commit to sustainable practices and hope it goes unnoticed. One great way to make use of your time is to reach out to your favorite brands and ask them to use certified sustainable palm oil. And one better, you could thank companies like P&G and Unilever for committing to the use of certified sustainable palm oil for their products. Many NGOs, like WWF for example, publish Scorecards that can help guide you to make educated purchasing decisions.

  • Support national parks and conservation programs. Many people aren’t aware that zoos help drive spending on conservation in palm oil-producing countries. 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 in regard to the transformation of markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm. The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in Indonesia works tirelessly to conserve orangutans and their habitat in Borneo. Every rupiah counts for these organizations. Perhaps now is the time to purchase that membership or make a donation.

  • Keep up the pressure for climate action. Climate change is an issue that is not going away just because we have been staying indoors for the past few months. The damage we have done to our planet is lasting, and it is up to us to remind our elected officials that we should not lose ground in our fight against climate change and deforestation, keeping these issues front and center in policy discussions.

Palm oil can be sustainable, but we all have an important role to play to ensure that it becomes the norm. You can start by learning more about the problems, supporting brands that have pledged to become sustainable, or pressure your favorite brands into making a change.

Our hope for the future is that organizations like RSPO would no longer be needed because commodity producers will inherently do the right thing, governments will have the best possible laws in place to protect workers and companies will provide premium compensation to support smallholders.

The writer is the Director Indonesia for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Tiur Rumondang.

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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