I remember watching a video of an orangutan visiting a girl’s room somewhere in Europe asking for help. It was a campaign video made by the Greenpeace to raise awareness on deforestation issues related to palm plantation in South East Asia. I am sure it was undoubtedly a very effective communication tool, having triggered some meaningful actions globally. But when I watched that video at the CISL workshop, I instead felt a bit uncomfortable as it was perhaps a bit too simplified to make the message straightforward, representing a single-sided narrative. I tend to question the narratives (or belief behind it) when the arguments on sustainability become too straightforward. So let me do that again.
Typical narratives on sustainability issues in the palm sector among ‘responsible’ global corporates and financial institutions are somewhat consistent. Palm oil is everywhere in our life, thanks to its efficiency and versatility, we cannot live without it, and its demand will only grow. However, the sector is a culprit of deforestation that has enormous negative impacts on biodiversity, climate change, local indigenous people; you name it. Some players are trying to conduct its business more responsibly, and they are participating or endorsed by the RSPO (or its local equivalent). Hence as a responsible buyer/investor/bank, we will support (and continue to deal with) only the certified ones or the ones who committed to the NDPE. As a Singaporean bank, with sizeable operations in Malaysia and Indonesia where 85% of the total global productions come from, this is what we say, too.
But if you change the perspective, in Indonesia, 40% of the palm is coming from a smallholder family. Many of them are living under or around the poverty line. So imagine you are one of them. You’ve been living in a small remote village in the middle of nowhere in Indonesia. You have very little access to education, information and meaningful economic activities. You see that your neighbour is planting palm trees in the neighbourhood, and they are making good money out of it, enough to pay for their kids’ food and education stably, while you are struggling to feed your children, not to mention education. There happen to be a small patch of land with some grown trees near your house, and the area was deserted as long as you can remember. You know there is a small mill nearby that can buy the palm from you. So you decide to follow your neighbour, then the question is, how do I start? Seemingly the easiest and cheapest way that I know of clearing the land is to set a small fire. What would you do?
Please don’t get me wrong. I am writing this while smelling the fire and smog sitting in my apartment in Singapore. Despite all the efforts on RSPO, NDPE and engagement, I feel them almost every night, unless it rains. I occasionally even need to wake up in the middle of the night to close windows to block the smell. I truly support all the sustainability efforts in the palm sector, and I want to see more actions and result. What I am trying to say is that sustainability issues in the palm industry are complex. Sizable palm companies have an army of sustainability team (typically more than 100) who daily travel from plantations to plantations, to understand issues and find solutions, together with local people. Some efforts have good short-term benefits, or some might take longer. I feel that one single sustainable palm label or simplified narratives cannot do the full justice to this sector. I hope that people try to understand the issues in a more balanced way, instead of jumping into a convenient conclusion too quickly.