Greenpeace has launched another annual attack on Indonesia’s palm oil sector this week. But the big problem for Greenpeace this year isn’t the fires – it’s the lack of them.
Greenpeace’s annual Indonesian fire reports are released to ensure maximum international press coverage for the organization. They are generally released in either August or September in order to coincide with the peak of the dry season.
In September of this year, they attempted to link their campaigning activity to the COVID crisis that is currently gripping Indonesia, which is the worst-affected country in Southeast Asia.
The current report appears to have been written for a fire ‘crisis’. However, the report instead launches a broadside on the Jokowi Administration. There appear to be three reasons for this: the nature of the fire season itself, the need to put forward a simplistic solution for a complicated problem, and Greenpeace’s need for new relevance in the palm oil debate.
This year’s fire season
The 2020 fires season has been mild, largely because of the La Nina weather pattern. Here are some comparative figures:
Fire Alerts – 2020 (past 12 months) (GFW)
These annual numbers are particularly significant. Greenpeace’s main current accusation against Indonesia is that 4.4 million ha burned in the five years between 2015 and 2019, or around 880,000 ha annually.
To put into context, this total over 5 years is around 25 per cent of the area burned in Australia and Russia in just 12 months.
In Greenpeace’s terms, the areas burned in Australia – in a single year –would be ‘more than four times the size of the Netherlands’.
The question needs to be asked: Why is Greenpeace picking on a developing country, rather than the US and Australia? California’s fire-fighting service is the most well resourced in the world. Australia provides expertise to fire-fighting forces around the globe. Both had much larger fires over the past 12 months, yet Greenpeace is taking this opportunity to attack Indonesia. As with Mighty Earth and the Norwegian Government, more questions need to be asked about Greenpeace’s motivations. Are they trying to stop fires, or are they just creating political havoc?
A simplistic solution
Anyone with any understanding of fire and land tenure dynamics in Indonesia understands that the Greenpeace approach of blaming companies for fires burned on their land is overly simplistic. Here’s why:
Fires do not stay in one place. Land may be burned within a company concession area, but fires spread from non-concession areas into concession areas.
Encroachment is a big problem within concession areas and even national parks. Some concession areas – particularly for pulp concessions in Sumatra – are massive. They often end up being encroached by smallholder communities who are unwitting victims of land sale fraud. Smallholders often use fire to clear land for farming. This places companies in a lose-lose situation: they can evict the smallholders and be accused of igniting conflict on contested land, or they can allow these farmers to continue sub-par land management.
Fire-fighting capacity is low. Western media and commentators often express anguish at Indonesia’s fires, simply failing to understand that a standing fire-fighting force is generally not something that developing countries can afford.
Local politics – not national level politics – have the biggest influence. As the country’s leading expert on fires points out, the biggest correlation between fires and political influence happens at the regency level, not at the national level.
Prevention is the best solution. As CIFOR has stated, it is prevention that is key when it comes to fires. They stated last year: “The Indonesian president’s emphasis on fire prevention, honed after the damaging 2015 fires during which 43 million people suffered the effects of air pollutants, is aligned with best practices highlighted by researchers working on the political economy of fires in peatlands and forests.”
Fire prevention as a strategy isn’t even mentioned in Greenpeace’s demands. They’re more interested in punishing large companies after the fact, even when doing so won’t necessarily solve the problem.
Looking for a big, opportunistic target
What these factors point to is the fact that the situation is complicated – and unfortunately Greenpeace doesn’t ‘do’ complicated or difficult. They prefer to go after large targets – such as industry organisations and the President – even when they are not the core problem.
That Greenpeace would attempt to link fires with the Omnibus Law smacks of opportunism. The Law alters the strict liability for concession owners when it comes to fires; instead of the concession owners being ‘responsible for the occurrence of fires’ under any circumstances, it requires them to ‘prevent and control’ fires.
This change has been seized upon by Greenpeace as: a) wrong; b) evidence of collusion between industry and government.
As noted above, Indonesia’s emphasis should be on prevention and control – not retribution after the fact. As CIFOR director Robert Nasi states, “Instead of focusing our attention on fires that have already started, we would be better off paying more attention to prevention.”
The change also removes the double bind for companies in relation to encroachment and fire. If smallholder encroachers are on a forest concession, the only way to absolutely prevent them from using fire – even if by accident – is to evict them. Most companies – and certainly not NGOs – do not want this.
Greenpeace sees this as evidence of collusion between the President and industry associations such as GAPKI (palm oil) and APHI (pulp and paper), even going so far as to personally attack the heads of each organization.
The evidence? That both participated in formal consultations on the Bill. This is absurd. Given that palm oil is the country’s largest agricultural product and employs millions of people, and that the Law covered any number of regulatory elements including investment, labour and energy, it would have been absurd for the government not to consult with these sectors.
Greenpeace appears to be looking for a way to make itself relevant in the Indonesian forest debate once again. Its past battles have generally been via RSPO. It has successfully lobbied for zero deforestation commitments from major producers that have made their way into RSPO’s rules. It did so by putting pressure on high-profile Western brands, which then put pressure on plantation companies.
The problem for Greenpeace is that pressuring RSPO and big brands really only hits a small part of the palm industry. And, as we’ve pointed out before, the palm industry’s contribution to deforestation isn’t anywhere near as Greenpeace and its allies try to make out.
Greenpeace’s most successful media plays in Europe over the past year, have been against Brazilian President Bolsanaro. By the looks of Greenpeace’s report, they’re trying to cast President Jokowi in a similar negative light.
Call us naïve, but we don’t think a character assassination of the left-leaning, non-elite leader of Southeast Asia’s largest economy in the middle of a major global health crisis is particularly productive.
Darrell Lea is Expelled from RSPO
Australian confectioner Darrell Lea has been expelled from the RSPO following its major announcement that it was removing palm oil from its chocolate brands.
The move by Darrell Lea – which included a video announcement implying that the move would somehow be better for conservation – was roundly condemned by a number of industry players.
As we pointed out in September:
Palm oil boycotts went out of fashion years ago: the world’s largest FMCG companies, NGOs and serious forest researchers don’t support the idea any more… Simplifying the complexities of deforestation to ‘palm oil equals destruction’ is a disservice to the millions of farmers that make up the palm oil community. It seems Darrell Lea is happy playing in the relatively small Australian market, but it may want to reconsider its approach if it has any ambitions in Indonesia and Malaysia.
RSPO notified Darrell Lea that it had breached the Code of Conduct for Supply Chain Associates, Section 1.4, which states:
“Members must not make claims which imply that the removal of palm oil from a product is a preferable social or environmental sustainability outcome to the use of RSPO certified sustainable palm oil. Moreover, members shall seek to promote, and not to denigrate the aims and goals of RSPO, namely the production and use of RSPO certified sustainable palm oil.”
That particular clause was introduced to prevent companies and NGOs from ultimately undermining RSPO’s core mission: to promote the production of sustainable palm oil. Several companies were attempting to have it both ways: attacking palm oil by claiming environmental benefits of ‘palm oil free’, yet claiming to support sustainable production. If the market – and demand – for sustainable palm oil is diminished then producers have no incentive to increase standards. This lesson is still lost on some Western companies, as the Darrell Lea lesson has demonstrated.
Avoiding Perverse Outcomes in Due Diligence
Recently, UK’s Minister of State for the Pacific and Environment, Lord Goldsmith, addressed the UK’s effort to pave the way towards environmental stewardship, by switching UK’s farm subsidies away from production and towards environmental stewardship, and calling for trade measures to ban commodities that contribute to illegal deforestation.
As we noted previously, any efforts to stop illegal deforestation are a worthy goal. However, it is key for UK policymakers to understand the difference between legal and illegal deforestation, especially when developing due diligence legislation and regulations that will effectively impose measures that could disrupt trade.
So far in the UK, larger firms such as Tesco and Nestle have supported the regulations. There’s a simple reason for this: they can afford the compliance costs. This is also why the UK proposals are seeking to find a threshold for smaller companies to not have to comply with the new rules. This, apparently, is not good enough for a number of NGOs, who are continuing to campaign for the rules to capture everyone in the supply chain.
The danger is that any compliance measure could just mean passing the cost on to producers rather than consumers via reduced margins. This is what happened with the introduction of sustainability certification in palm oil; producers were promised premiums, but instead were lumped with the compliance costs that were not passed on to consumers.
Similarly, another outcome that should be avoided on the supply side is one where smaller producers of palm oil, i.e. smallholders, are unable to afford to implement RSPO or other certification measures and are unable to access Western markets and supply chains.
As UK’s DEFRA and the Department of International Trade are beginning to understand, navigating what separates ‘illegal,’ ‘legal,’ and, ‘sustainable’ is complicated – and perverse outcomes need to be avoided.