The Palm Oil Manifesto: An Exercise in Greenwashing

What is a rainforest? Seems like an easy enough question to answer.

But apparently not for some of the world’s worst forest destroyers, like palm oil producers IOI Loders Croklaan, Sime Darby, and KLK. These companies know that their customers – the world’s big consumer companies like Nestle, Kellogg, Mars and others will only buy palm oil free from connection to deforestation.

But instead of stopping clearing the forest, these companies are just attempting to change the definition of a forest – so they can continue to conduct business as usual. Specifically, this alliance of palm oil companies has proposed to study how much carbon a forest must contain before it should be considered protected land.

Seems reasonable. But the problem is that these standards are already established, already scientifically studied, and already accepted. Palm oil giants Wilmar and Golden Agri-Resources (together representing more than half of global palm oil trade) as well as Asia Pulp and Paper are all already implementing forest conservation policies that have credible scientifically-derived standards to protect all High Carbon Stock forests – essentially anything that’s older than degraded grassland or young scrub. Wilmar, for instance, protects forests that are greater than ten years in age – a very reasonable cutoff. Now suppliers like IOI are blatantly ignoring the science and coming up with their own definitions to meet their own greedy agendas.

While additional research is always welcome and useful, it needs to be conducted by credible scientists and technical experts in an inclusive and transparent process, not by the very companies who have a vested interest in the outcome.

How can you tell that the study isn’t being conducted in good faith? Unlike previous efforts, companies like IOI Loders Croklaan, Sime Darby and KLK are refusing to declare a moratorium on deforestation while they’re studying the forest. Which means that they’ll basically be studying the forest as a bulldozer whacks it down. This is a bit like the Japanese government’s efforts to conduct research on whales – by harpooning them.

These same unscrupulous producers and traders have come together to sign onto a “Palm Oil Manifesto” which sounds good on the surface, but in the fine print has significant loopholes that allow for continued clearance of high carbon forests and peatlands.  And the standards are narrowly applied, excluding the palm oil these companies trade and the palm oil produced by joint venture partners and subsidiaries with whom the companies own minority shares.  The manifesto falls far short of the responsible sourcing guidelines recently adopted by Wilmar International and Golden Agri-Resources, and has failed to get support from even one consumer company or non-governmental organization.

If the greenwashing goes on without a fight, the rampant destruction of Southeast Asia’s critical rainforests will continue. Consumer companies and financiers should insist that palm oil companies at least respect the science, and start protecting forests.

On July 11, 2014

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