In a controversial press statement, the Indonesian Government has misrepresented an IUCN report to justify its own agenda to plant more palm oil and cast doubt as to the validity of claims of the palm oil critics. The report was issued in English in June 2018 but was launched in Indonesia on 5th February 2019.
“It is unfortunate for everyone that the Indonesian Government is manipulating the findings of our study to obscure the scientific basis of global concerns about oil palm expansion,” said Marcus Colchester, Senior Policy Advisor with Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), and a member of the IUCN Task Force that drafted the report.
“The IUCN report – focused on the direct impacts of oil palm plantations on biodiversity – presents a detailed summary of the available evidence, and points to major problems with the way oil palm has expanded at the expense of the environment. As FPP has separately reported, this is at a huge cost to local communities and indigenous peoples.”
The Indonesian Government seized on one set of facts in the report which is that, as oil palm is a very efficient crop in terms of oil yield per hectare, replacing palm oil with edible oils from other more extensive crops would have impacts that should also be taken into account.
“We do not deny that oil palm is one of the most efficient plants in terms of the land area needed. The problem is that historically, palm oil has been produced by clearing forests, including millions of hectares of forests on peatlands that are very rich in carbon.”
Indonesian Civil Society organisations who have long campaigned for reforms in the way oil palm is developed, have been ‘angered’ by the Government’s response and are ‘infuriated’ by the way the IUCN seems to them to have allowed its work to be misrepresented.
“We do not deny that oil palm is one of the most efficient plants in terms of the land area needed,” said the Executive Director of SawitWatch, Indah Fatinaware.
“The problem is that historically, palm oil has been produced by clearing forests, including millions of hectares of forests on peatlands that are very rich in carbon,” she added.
The Switzerland-based World Conservation Union (IUCN), of which FPP is a member, is still considering how it should respond.
Key findings that the Indonesian Government is ignoring from the IUCN Report
Globally, the IUCN study identified 18.7 million hectares of oil palm plantations on an industrial scale and in addition an undetermined and substantial area of more dispersed smallholdings. It noted that oil palm has been locally responsible for high deforestation rates.
- The study found that 50% of all deforestation on the island of Borneo between 2005 and 2015 was driven by oil palm development.
- In Malaysia, oil palm development accounted for 47% of deforestation from 1972 to 2015.
- In Indonesia as a whole, almost 40% of oil palm expansion has been in forests.
- Oil palm has caused 16% of all deforestation in Indonesia as a whole between 1972 and 2015.
- In other areas industrial-scale oil palm’s footprint remains small. The study found that in Central America and West Africa between 1972 and 2015, oil palm made up only 2–3% of forest loss.
- Where oil palm replaces tropical forest, the negative impact on biodiversity is significant.
- Conversion for oil palm has played a major role in the decline in species such as orangutans.
- Human-wildlife conflicts increase in oil palm development areas.
The study concludes that oil palm development has significant negative impacts on global biodiversity.
Other environmental impacts
The study, which focused on biodiversity, did not look in detail at the wider environmental impacts of oil palm but did note that these include:
- increased greenhouse gas emissions related to deforestation and peat-drainage;
- the use of fire in land clearing and resulting smoke-haze;
- negative impacts on downstream water quality and freshwater species diversity;
- invasive species associated with oil palm;
- pest-spillover effects and;
- secondary impacts of hunting.
The biodiversity study also did not look in detail at the social and economic impacts of oil palm but states that the Task Force aims to address this in its next phase of work. Nevertheless, the report did note links between the socio-economic impacts and biodiversity. It found:
- In the palm oil sector, the links between tenure insecurity and accelerated deforestation are well documented, for example, the lack of secure rights for forest peoples opens up forested areas to investors seeking to establish plantations;
- When the customary lands of communities are taken over without consent or compensation (‘land grabs’) then pressure on remaining forests intensifies;
- Ensuing conflicts impose high costs on companies and communities alike and paralyse land governance, thereby disrupting both plantations and conservation efforts;
- Companies’ efforts to set aside forests and areas of high conservation value run into problems where there is tenure insecurity, lack of community participation, inadequate land for local food security and livelihoods and no incentives for community conservation;
- There are direct links between weaknesses in land governance, including corruption and collusion over obtaining oil palm development permits, and forest management.
“Rather than trying to deflect concern by cherry picking facts, the government should honestly admit that there are serious problems and set out a coherent plan to address them. Oil palms are not evil trees, in themselves, it is just that planting them should be done in ways that respect rights and protect the environment.”
A more nuanced discussion is needed
“The strange thing is that other parts of the Indonesian Government are responding more constructively to global criticism of palm oil,” said Colchester. “The President has frozen the handout of permits for oil palm expansion. A government body is tasked with rewetting peatlands and moving plantations off peat onto mineral soils. There are several agencies committed to resolving land conflicts and promises have been made to recognise indigenous peoples’ land rights,” he added.
Unfortunately, these measures have yet to be properly implemented.
“Rather than trying to deflect concern by cherry picking facts, the government should honestly admit that there are serious problems and set out a coherent plan to address them,” he said.
“Oil palms are not evil trees, in themselves, it is just that planting them should be done in ways that respect rights and protect the environment.”