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Can palm oil ever be sustainable?

More and more rainforest is disappearing at the hands of oil palm plantations, with global production doubling between 2000 and 2012. As the debate about the world’s consumption of palm oil continues to rage, a panel of experts joined the Lush Summit 2018 to discuss where we can go from here, and whether the idea of sustainable palm oil is realistic or an oxymoron. One thing became clear - the problem of palm is a complex one and there is no single silver bullet solution, writes Lush Times reporter, Katie Dancey-Downs

A young girl looks out from an old photograph. She is just six years old and part of the Orang Rimba tribe - a nomadic group in Sumatra whose whole existence is tied intrinsically to the forest.

This photograph has haunted the UK naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham since he took it 20 years ago, when he first visited Sumatra and the Orang Rimba tribe. In a way, the girl has come to represent, to Chris, a kind of barometer for the state of the planet, and he is determined to find her once again. Is she still alive? If she is, does she still live in peace in the Sumatran forest, or is the palm oil industry pushing the Orang Rimba to the edge of existence?

Chris now has an answer, having recently returned from filming In Search of the Lost Girl in Sumatra. The film lays bare some of the uncomfortable truths of how the Indigenous Orang Rimba tribe is being so dramatically impacted by the palm oil industry, and how the rest of the world is driving the problem. Fresh from the trip, Chris joined the Lush Summit 2018, and along with sustainability experts, businesses, and campaigners, took to the stage for The Big Palm Debate.

The Big Palm Debate, Lush Summit 2018

Palm oil may appear in everything from biscuits to shampoo, but behind the world’s most widely consumed vegetable oil there is a story of devastation for wildlife, humans, and the environment.

In the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, is a tale of two forests. One forest is dense with native plants, and the sounds of vibrant life bounce between trees. The second is a regimented palm plantation, with any sign of wildlife stripped away - it is a ghost town. This is the only place in the world where orangutans, rhinos, elephants, and tigers coexist, but they are being pushed out of their natural habitat as oil palm plantations encroach on the forest. These monocultures are inhospitable to wildlife, and disrupt the ecosystem’s delicate balance.

Panut Hadisiswoyo has seen the effects of oil palm monocultures first hand. Through his work with the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Sumatra, he is tackling the problems facing Sumatran orangutans, the biggest of which is forest loss, he says. “The problem is expansion which never stops. Many forests have been replaced by plantations and even as we sit here now, the forest is probably shrinking,” Panut tells the Summit audience.

Can we trust certifications?

High on the panel’s agenda, is the question of certification. Can palm oil ever really be sustainable, and if it claims to be so, how can businesses and consumers be sure that it is?

Taking a seat on the panel, is Danielle Morley from the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the global certification standard for sustainable palm oil. She explains that within the RSPO, there are a number of principles and criteria that the organisation uses to determine whether palm oil is sustainable. Now, the RSPO is looking at how a goal of ‘zero deforestation’ could work in reality. Danielle says: “Our vision is to transform the markets so that sustainable palm oil is the norm.” She says that in addition to certification, round tables like the RSPO also exist as very valuable engagement platforms.

Fiona Wheatley, sustainable development manager at Marks and Spencer, represents the retail sector on the RSPO. She agrees that the RSPO creates an important space for conversations that can drive real change. However, what she has an issue with is the term “sustainable” as an absolute. Instead, she wants to see continuous development and adaptation. Fiona has an important reminder: we need nature in order to survive as a species. Nature, communities, and humans must be at the heart of all decision-making, and continual improvements need to take place. This, she says, is much better than simply “ticking boxes.”

Should we be going palm oil free?

Up and down the supermarket aisles, product after product contains this seemingly inescapable ingredient. Cheap and versatile, palm oil is the highest yielding vegetable oil crop. It is no wonder that we see it penetrating right through food and cosmetics industries.

While some businesses are turning their backs on palm oil all together, it is a long way from being eradicated from the mainstream. So what should companies and consumers be doing, if they want to wash their hands of deforestation?

“It really does depend on the company’s particular values and aspirations,” says Fiona Wheatley adding that in the main, she has seen businesses focussing on the issues surrounding palm oil, rather than removing it from products completely. “This topic is very high on the producing governments’ agendas; it’s high on the agenda of the industry bodies. Without all that, business would have continued as usual and we would have lost a lot more forest, and production would be a lot less sustainable than it is now,” she says.

She is clear that everyone is frustrated at the slow pace of change. There is still a long way to go, and ecological conservation goals can only be achieved if everybody works together. Lush head buyer Simon Constantine has spent the last decade grappling with the issues of palm oil, and seeing the devastation in Sumatra first hand. He says: “If palm exists in the right ecosystem and it has the right relationship to the natural environment and to people then it could be great. I haven’t seen an example of that yet.” Finding the right ingredients from the right areas is a better way to meet demand, he says.

For the OIC’s Panut Hadisiswoyo, the problem lies in the way palm oil is cultivated. As far as he sees it, there is no more space for palm oil development. Palm oil has contributed hugely to economic growth in Indonesia, and Panut explains that the young people see their futures in this industry. But he believes permaculture could provide an alternative future, and give smallholders the opportunity to make more income from their land. “We need to offer a solution for local communities to improve their livelihoods, and not just rely on monocultures; not just rely on palm oil,” he warns. “We all have a responsibility to actually do something about it, not just talk the talk.”

Where do we go from here?

Chris Packham is very emphatic about one thing: oil palm monocultures are a symptom of a wider problem - our collective over-consumption. He wants to see research into how we as a species are impacting the planet. The time to act is now, he says. “We cannot use complication as an excuse. If there are things that desperately need doing, forget complications, just get on and fix it. There isn’t enough forest left, so let’s not cut any more down. If there’s no forest left, then there’s no hope for us,” he says. Chris told the audience he has tried to go palm oil-free since his return from Sumatra, and admits he is failing. Palm oil is everywhere.

As Chris’s example shows, boycotting products containing palm oil is easier said than done. In fact, a number of the panelists suggested consumers will not make any meaningful impact on the industry simply by boycotting palm oil. Instead, the Sumatran Orangutan Society’s Helen Buckland says that people need to be active in constructive ways, in order to protect forests at risk around the world. “There’s a lot that can be done and your voices are so important,” she stresses. Helen has some advice: write to companies, and pile on the pressure. Find organisations that you believe in, and follow their lead.

When it comes to palm oil, there is no silver bullet that will solve the problem. The panel does not necessarily agree on any single best course of action, but it does agree that people power is the way to make real change.

And what about the little Orang Rimba girl Chris captured in his photograph all those years ago? Is she now a grown woman, still living happily in the forest where she and her ancestors were born? Chris found answers to his questions, but they were answers which only further fuelled his anger at the palm oil industry.

Watch the full debate here.

Read more about Lush and palm oil here

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