Palm Oil Monitor – Weekly Update 13th September

The Haze Season Campaign Begins

The end of the dry season is approaching in Southeast Asia. For many countries it also represents the beginning of the haze season.

The haze season is often a rallying point for anti-palm oil groups; that will particularly be the case this year as the EU looks for ways to tighten up imports of palm oil by proposing new deforestation criteria based on high carbon stock and indirect land use change.

But to put this into perspective, it’s worth comparing the fire count in palm oil producing countries with those in a number of Western and other countries. From September 4-11, the following was recorded by Global Forest Watch:

  • Malaysia: 198 fire alerts
  • Indonesia: 11,904 fire alerts
  • United States: 18,667 fire alerts
  • Australia: 44,568 fire alerts
  • Brazil: 137,517 fire fires

It should also be noted that Malaysia’s record on fires has been strong. The peak daily fire count recorded in Malaysia over recent years was in 2014 when it hit 423. Portugal, however, made it to 1,127 fires at this time last year. The US made it to 5,268 in 2014. This is crucial to understanding the facile argument that there is an umbilical link between oil palm, to fires, to haze. It simply isn’t so.

The breakdown of fires in palm oil concessions in Indonesia is of note. Over the past week, there were 203 fires recorded in palm concessions. Only one of these was in a RSPO-certified area.

Around 12 per cent of all fires were in palm concessions; 18 per cent were in pulp plantation and logging areas; 8 per cent were in protected areas; 20 per cent were in moratorium areas.

The high percentage in moratorium areas shouldn’t be surprising. By preventing development of forest areas in Indonesia, local communities will simply assume that the land is vacant; a lack of enforcement capacity means there is no one to police the area. Local communities will therefore use fire to both claim the land and clear it; it’s not as though these local communities are walking around with a detailed moratorium map.

But the broader point should be apparent: the only annual fire events that become associated with a commodity are those around palm oil, and that myth will continue to be peddled.

Meijaard: “If I was an oil palm tree I’d be pretty p*ssed off”

A renowned conservation biologist has made a strong defence of palm oil in a recent podcast, highlighting the fact that it is always singled out by campaign groups, and also pointing out that oil palm plantations have a much greater biodiversity potential than other oil crops.

Erik Meijaard is chair of the IUCN Palm and Biodiversity Task Force. Meijaard takes things further in this podcast than in the report; he states that while there are around 25 million ha of oil palms in the world, there are also 14 million ha of coconut palms, which have also displaced forests and had an impact on biodiversity.

The key issue, Meijaard says, is that “The orang utan has always put palm oil in a ‘special’ place.”

But he points out that oil palm plantations have significant potential for biodiversity conservation that is generally overlooked. Soybean and rapeseed are annual crops that must be cultivated every year, whereas oil palm trees remain standing for at least 25 years, which allows maintenance of biodiversity because the environment is relatively stable.

Although there is no doubt that initial clearing of land will take a significant toll on biodiversity in that immediate area, he says “You would actually be surprised at how much biodiversity comes back … We can actually maintain a decent level of biodiversity.”

He highlights several examples in Brazil and Gabon, but also some work being undertaken in Borneo, where the ‘special’ place of the orang utan is particularly acute.

“25 per cent of orang utans are in conservation areas,” he says, pointing out that outside of these areas is a matrix of forest, palm, pulp plantations. “But 75 per cent have to survive in this matrix … that’s where the big challenge is.”

He says that on one plantation, there are “150 orang utans within set asides within the plantation.” The common problem with plantation set asides is that they’re not actively managed, which requires resources to prevent hunting, snaring and fires.

This is particularly acute in Indonesia, where compliance and enforcement are low. This brings up larger questions. A country like Malaysia, which has higher levels of economic development and stronger enforcement, has fewer such problems with illegal activities. But for countries with enforcement problems and greater levels of poverty, setting aside land for conservation introduces new problems. Many local communities will assume that it is vacant.

In other words, this isn’t just about palm oil. It’s about national approaches to conservation and understanding the complexity of the situation – the precise opposite of Greenpeace’s ‘Rang-tan’ approach.

Deforestation in Brazil Makes the Press

Deforestation in Brazil is back in the world spotlight following a report that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has increased by around 50 per cent over the past 12 months, hitting 77,800 ha. In NGO terms, that’s an area three times the size of Kuala Lumpur.

Added to that, the Cerrado, an area of savannah to the east of the Amazon has come under greater pressure, losing 1.8 million ha of natural cover in a 2-year period from 2013-2015 according to official estimates.

In both cases the pressure has come from both soybean and beef. Three things should be noted.

  • Soybeans are a much greater export commodity than beef for Brazil in dollar terms.
  • Almost three quarters of those exports go to China. This trade is worth USD14 billion.
  • There will be greater pressure on this trade given the souring trade relationship between China and the US.

In addition, the following needs to be considered:

  • The exports of soybean meal (used for feed) to the EU from Brazil is worth around USD3 billion.
  • This compares to exports of palm oil from Malaysia to the EU, which are worth around USD1.3 billion.

The upshot is this: If the EU wants to make its longer term plans for ‘imported deforestation’ more concrete, this needs to be taken into account.

Should oil palm producers be rejoicing? Will palm finally get the reprieve it deserves?

The problem, however, is political. Tightening soy meal imports will push up production costs for EU meat producers – and therefore consumers. EU meat producers can already claim that their product is ‘deforestation free’.

It’s therefore still more politically palatable for EU lawmakers and regulators to blame palm oil for global deforestation.