Humanising the Palm Oil Debate

A Migrant worker dies on a plantation due to unsafe working practices. His family cannot afford to repatriate the body and the plantation owner refuses to cover the costs. He is buried in an unnamed grave amongst the palm trees he used to cut, thousands of kilometres away from his family and homeland.

A female worker goes home nauseous every day after spraying fertiliser for 10 hours. She is paid less than her male equivalents and denied a stable contract. But she knows she shouldn't complain, because at least she made it home safe again tonight.

Our third worker is a child. Denied the right to education, as his family life consists of helping his father to cut the amount of fresh fruit bunches necessary to get paid that day.

These are examples of negative social impacts which still take place in the palm oil industry today. But with an almost exclusive focus on environmental topics such as deforestation and wildlife protection, Europe has neglected to draw the human factor into the debate. The men and women upon which we all depend to be able to buy our favourite cookies, detergents and creams. The men and women who are as vulnerable as some of the protected wildlife species but who do not have as many strong global NGOs dedicated to them. It is time that we fully and unequivocally recognise and mitigate the negative social impacts in the palm oil industry and also start to really leverage the socio-economic opportunities it can bring to local communities. To develop a truly sustainable palm oil sector we must not only talk about the "man of the forest" but about the "men and women in the forest".

So what are the challenges?

There are many challenges for forest communities. Social conflict can arise between communities over rights to land. Traditional structures in villages and tribes can be challenged due to sudden changes in socio-economic and purchasing power. Displacement of communities and loss of customary lands rights threaten millions of people who do not have a legal document to prove ownership. Culturally important heritage or burial sites are threatened by growing plantations; and displacement of farmers can lead them to burn land to clear it for new appropriation. On the plantation, the workers might live without access to energy, water or light. Documents can be confiscated, leading to de facto bonded labour, and child labour is still not an uncommon sight. In Malaysia alone it is estimated that between 72,000 and 200,000 stateless children work on oil palm plantations. The list goes on and on. But we cannot let that long list discourage us. The list is proof that we must go forward with boldness and conviction. Now more than ever.

How about the benefits?

If we want to have a balanced debate about the social impact of palm oil we cannot only look at the negative impacts. We must also acknowledge the tremendous role this commodity plays in feeding the world’s population and the benefits it has for millions of smallholder farmers. Contrary to public perception, 40% of global palm oil production is being done by smallholder farmers who directly depend on it for their livelihood. Large-scale plantation owners must ensure that local communities benefit from their presence. Not only through jobs, but by providing access to education, energy and other improvements to the living standard. Furthermore, the low price of palm oil cooking oil means that millions of people in developing countries depend on it to get food on the table. The fact of the matter is, if we want to achieve the first two of the Sustainable Development Goals (No poverty and No hunger), sustainable palm oil is an indispensable piece of the puzzle.

What can we do?

1. We need to widen the scope of the sustainability debate. It cannot be about ecology alone. Natural and social impacts are highly interlinked and positive socio-economic development cannot be ignored. Certification standards like the RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C) include the linkages of people and planet.

2. Collect, assess and share data. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) collects data yearly from all certified units; we monitor situations on the ground and we perform in-depth independent and commissioned studies. Our reports can be found in the RSPO Research Library.

3. Continue working to increase holistic principles in the RSPO standards to further expand its coverage. The RSPO standards raise the legal bar and go beyond legal requirements in order to affect real change on the ground.

4. Explain the RSPO standards by translating them into concrete, readable and practical guidance documents that help organisations to do better, such as the RSPO Guidance on Child Rights for downstream supply chain actors and the RSPO Practical Guidance on Gender Inclusion.

5. Be inclusive, leave no one behind. RSPO aims to implement a realistic and fair approach of the standard which gives farmers, producers, mills and retailers the chance to jump aboard and grow into their sustainable clothes.

What about the consumer?

The consumer is key as a driver for sustainability. This means we must change the narrative from “no palm oil” to “sustainable palm oil”. A European consumer boycott of palm oil would not just be unsustainable, but counterproductive as well. “Unsustainable” because the alternatives which would have to be used are usually much more demanding in terms of water and land usage and may very well face similar negative social impacts. “Counterproductive” because this would mean that the European customer gives up its leverage. Europe is leading the call for sustainable palm oil consumption. 86% of the palm oil which is imported into Europe in 2019 for food, animal feed and oleochemicals was already RSPO certified. If European consumers start to avoid palm oil, they would disengage from the palm oil debate. This would significantly decrease the pressure on companies and producers to produce sustainably. A simultaneously strong growing global demand for palm oil means that this decreased pressure could create a serious setback for the millions of men and women working in the industry.

So how do we leverage the critical voice of the European consumer?

1. Don’t be defensive. Instead, educate consumers on the market presence and benefits of sustainable palm oil and how that contributes to positive change.

2. When challenged, be transparent and honest about the social challenges in the palm oil industry and the work that is being done to mitigate the negative impacts.

3. Explain clearly why switching to alternative oils is often not possible and/or less sustainable.

4. Strengthen their knowledge on RSPO certification so they will demand the RSPO trademark on the products they buy.

I am convinced that if we do this, we can alter the tone of the debate. So I hope you will join me for a constructive talk during the third Sustainable Palm Oil Dialogue: European Action for Global Impact’ from 27 - 29 September 2021.

I am honored to participate in a panel on Tuesday 28 12.30 - 14.30 to discuss how we can drive positive social change in the palm oil sector.

Let’s humanise the debate and see palm oil for what it is: a commodity that – like any other – has its problems, but has the potential to be a great accelerator for positive change.

Change that is sustainable from every perspective!

Ruben Brunsveld

Deputy Director EMEA