Looking towards a positive future on World Environment Day
It’s hard to find positivity and motivation as the world is experiencing the crisis of the pandemic. Adding to the long-acknowledged climate change crisis, as well as the emerging awareness of the crisis of biodiversity loss (which leading scientists claim is more critical than even that of climate change), it would be easy for many to feel helpless and despondent.
Working in the area of orangutan and forest conservation for over a quarter century, I’ve experienced enough disappointment, outrage, and anguish to make anyone want to throw in the towel. From helping to rescue and care for traumatised orphaned orangutans to witnessing the juggernaut of destruction associated with conventional production of timber, pulp and paper and oil palm, I find my own search for optimism challenging.
But every now and then something truly positive happens to reinvigorate my determination. Today, on World Environment Day, the United Nations Environmental Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations launch the United Nations Decade of Restoration. With the aspirational and essential goal of preventing, halting and reversing the degradation of ecosystems worldwide, the platform presents an opportunity to address the wrongs of the past and take steps in the present to ensure the future. Applying this concept to the work that my organisation, Orangutan Land Trust, does in the area of driving sustainable supply chains of palm oil is something I’d like to see more stakeholders do.
Impacts of palm oil
The impacts of conventional palm oil over recent decades have been undeniably catastrophic for biodiversity. We cannot “undo” these impacts. What we can do is halt the actions and behaviours that today continue to wreak devastation, put in place measures to prevent it in the future, and take meaningful and scalable steps to restore what has been damaged. Adopting this position does not make one an apologist for the industry, but rather, an effective crusader for change. And there are many who share this position, including leading environmental and social NGOs engaged in the issue. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil today boasts more than 5000 members from 100 countries committed to making sustainable palm oil the norm. While an impressive number, its value is diminished by not only members whose commitments are not being fully implemented (such as buyers not sourcing 100% CSPO), but even more by those outside of membership failing to take any action to support sustainable supply chains. Take for example those brands and retailers using “Palm Oil Free” claims, not, as they would insist, to “save rainforests and orangutans,” but merely as a lucrative PR stunt. Walking away from a problem is not the same as contributing to the solution. (Especially if walking away means walking towards a graver problem as can be posed by the use of less sustainable alternative oils!)
Boycott does not work
Is it surprising that some companies jump on the “Say No to Palm Oil” bandwagon so easily, without sparing a thought for the nuance of the decision? Traditional media, social media, self-declared watchdogs and even books are awash with ill-informed and often biased representations of palm oil, many with a specific focus of attack on sustainable palm oil and the stakeholders committed to it. The motivation? It’s hard to say. It can certainly be “click-baitable” for one thing. But what is commonly lacking in all these communiques is a viable solution to address the issues. #BoycottPalmOil is not going to change the way palm oil is produced on the ground. It’s not going to encourage the necessary continuous improvement needed in certification systems like RSPO, or in assurance and transparency. And it most certainly is not going to do anything to right the wrongs of the past. In short, such a position is entirely unhelpful.
So what do I propose as an alternative? I propose we demand that growers producing palm oil bring to a halt the destructive practices associated with conventional production, put in place the necessary measures to prevent future negative impacts, and invest in nature-based solutions to contribute to the restoration of ecosystems. I propose we demand that traders and buyers of palm oil, including both manufacturers and retailers, immediately source only 100% CSPO via one or more of the approved Sustainable Supply Chain Options set out by the RSPO and that they invest in ecosystem restoration. I propose we demand that governments of both producer and consumer nations support and uphold these expectations for the supply chain and contribute themselves to ecosystem restoration. And finally, as consumers, all of us can play our part by supporting the companies doing the right thing and demanding those who are not bring to a halt all activities implicated in the destruction of ecosystems, put in place measures to prevent future degradation and start to put right the wrongs of the past by helping to restore ecosystems for our shared future.