palmoil1The spread of palm oil plantations and the developing palm oil industry is both one of the greatest threats to the survival of the orangutans, and an important driver of future economic growth in Indonesia and Malaysia. Despite repeated and high profile warnings of the toll the development of the industry is taking on the regions biodiversity, the number of plantations continues to increase.

Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis), which is native to the tropical rainforests of Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo, Angola and the Congo Basin, in Africa, all tropical countries that experience high levels of rainfall, to which oil palm is suited.

The processing of oil palm fruit has been practiced in Africa for thousands of years, and is an essential ingredient in much of traditional West African cuisine (FAO, 2008). Its history as an agricultural commodity is, however, relatively recent.  Fruits of the oil palm tree were first taken from Africa to the Americas and the Far East between the 14th and 17th centuries, and the international trade in palm oil began at the beginning of the 19th century, with palm oil becoming the principle cargo of slave ships after the abolition of the slave trade. As living standards in Europe increased during the industrial revolution, demand for palm oil increased, principally for use in soaps and other household products, and as an industrial lubricant. In the 1870’s, exports of palm oil from the Niger Delta were 25,000 to 30,000 tonnes per year, and by 1911, the British West African Territories exported 87,700 tonnes annually (FAO, 2008). The export of palm oil kernel also began in 1832, and by 1911, the British West African Territories were exporting 157,000 tonnes, 75% of which was from Nigeria, which was the largest exporter of palm oil until it was surpassed by Malaysia in 1934 (FAO, 2008).

The oil palm tree was first introduced to Malaysia as an ornamental plant in 1875, and was first planted as a commercial crop in 1917 (Basiron, 2007), and its use and cultivation has grown exponentially ever since. Areas under oil palm in Malaysia have increased from 54,000 hectares in 1960 to 4.05 million hectares in 2005, reflecting an annual growth of 10.06% (Basiron, 2007).

In both Indonesia and Malaysia, the area planted with oil palm has trebled from 24,000 km2 in 1990 to 83,700 km2 in 2007, an average annual increase of around 3,500 km2, and it is estimated that at least 55% of oil palm expansion in these countries came at the expanse of natural forests, with the remainder obtained from the conversion of pre-existing croplands such as rubber and cocoa (Nantha & Tisdell, 2008). In 2007 alone, Malaysia and Indonesia made US$14 billion and US$5.5 billion from palm oil export revenue, and the industry directly and indirectly employs around a million people in both of these countries (Nantha & Tisdell, 2008).

Palm oil is commonly found in three varieties: Dura, Pissifera and Tenera, which is a hybrid of Dura and Pisifera, and is the one most commonly planted today (Kubota et al, 2009). Oil palm trees need deep, well-structured soil to grow on, with an uninterrupted supply of clean water, and can reach a height of around 60 feet, producing  fruit bunches that weigh between 10 and 25kg and contain several hundred fruitlets, which are orange-red in color, ripening to dark (Kubota et al, 2009). Palm oil trees usually begin bearing fruit bunches of sufficient size after 30 months (Basiron, 2007), and are harvested by removing ripe bunches using a chisel on a short pole, or a sickle on a larger pole for taller fruit. On average, two or three bunches are harvested from each tree, and harvesting rounds are usually organized throughout the year so that the palm is visited every 2 weeks. The trees produce fruit for 30 years, with the yield decreasing over time (Kubota et al, 2009; Barison, 2007).

Although usually referred to generically as just ‘palm oil’, the fruits of the oil palm tree actually produce two different types of oil, palm oil and palm oil kernel. Palm oil fruits are comprised of an outer skin called the exocarp; a fleshy interior from which the palm fruit oil is squeezed; an inner nut called the endocarp, and a kernel inside the nut from which palm kernel oil is squeezed (Kabota et al, 2009). The two oils are extracted by careful separation during the milling process. Palm oil is used predominantly in food products, while palm kernel oil is used mainly as an ingredient in soap, detergents and toiletry products, and accounts for about 10% of the quantity of palm oil produced. The kernel also yields a residual product called palm kernel meal, which is used as an ingredient in animal feed (Basiron, 2007).

The palm oil trees high yield, cheap cost and the fact that the yield is semi solid at room temperature, so does not need to be hardened to be useful as a shortening, has made palm oil the most widely traded oil on the international market. Highly versatile, it is used in a variety of household products, from margarines and shortening to cooking oil, soups, baked goods and confectionary products. It can also be a substitute for hard animal fats, such as butter and lard, and for soy, olive or canola liquid vegetable oils. Chocolate products such as candy bars and cake icing use palm oil as a substitute for cocoa butter, and it is often found in ice cream, peanut butter, coffee whitener, canned cream soups, potato chips, milk, trail mix and other snack foods (Brown & Jacobson, 2005). WWF estimates that 50% of all packaged supermarket products contain palm oil.

Finding a way to balance the spread of palm oil plantations and the increasing demand for palm oil, palm kernel oil and palm kernel meal on the international market is one of the greatest challenges for conservationists working in Indonesia and Malaysia. Condemning the whole industry, or hoping that it simply fades away, is unrealistic, so conservationists have increasingly begun working with the industry, encouraging the concept of sustainable palm oil.

On paper, all oil palm plantations should already be sustainable, as their development is strongly regulated by laws in both Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia, which is home to the largest populations of orangutans and the most substantial tracts of rainforest in South East Asia, no significant land development activities are permitted before the company has obtained a valid Plantation Business Permit (IUP), which should only be awarded after an Environmental Impact Assessment has been completed and approved. According to Indonesian law, developing an oil palm plantation without an EIA should result in any IUP that has been issued being revoked (Greenpeace, 2009). Indonesian law also stipulates that any area that contains peat deeper than 3 meters should automatically be afforded legally protected status, and that if any concessions contain forested areas, companies are forbidden from cutting trees or harvesting and collecting any forest products until they have obtained a Timber Cutting Permit (IPK), which is issued at a local level by either the governor or the district head (Greenpeace, 2009). As orangutans are a protected species throughout the country, their presence in any forested area should, on paper, ensure its protection. In reality, these laws are routinely flouted.

rspo-logo1In order to ensure laws are adhered to, and to encourage sustainability throughout the industry, in 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed. Made up of a consortium of NGO’s and palm oil producers, the voluntary organisation hopes to encourage palm oil producers to adopt practices and guidelines that would lead to palm oil production becoming environmentally and socially sustainable. Hence, by joining the organisation companies are obliged to comply with the RSPO’s ‘Principles & Criteria’, which stipulate that all palm oil producers commit to transparency, comply with all laws and regulations of the countries they are working in, commit to long term economic viability, use appropriate best practices, behave in an environmentally responsible way and conserve natural resources and biodiversity, consider employees and local communities and adhere to responsible development. If all these criteria are reached, palm oil producers are encouraged to have their palm oil plantations certified by the RSPO as sustainable, which would allow them to use the RSPO logo and advertise their palm oil as such.

Launched with much fanfare and with the support of the majority of rainforest conservation charities, including OURF, the RSPO has tried to regulate the industry and bring the issue of palm oil and its sustainability to consumers. However, it has also been dogged by accusations of ineffectiveness, infighting, lax regulation and competing interests. At the heart of these issues is the debate over whether palm oil can ever be truly sustainable, and whether such a complicated extraction, processing and distribution process can ever be properly certified.  To try and combat this, the RSPO offers four different categories of certification, with different levels of certification depending on how thoroughly the palm oil can be traced from source to distribution. The most popular certification method is the Greenpalm scheme, an RSPO endorsed trading scheme that enables palm oil producers to earn a premium for using sustainable production methods, regardless of whether their product is exported. RSPO-certified producers are issued certificates for each tonne of certified palm oil that they produce. End-users can then 'cover' their use of palm oil by buying the certificates from GreenPalm, in the process supporting sustainable palm oil production (GreenPalm website).

An issue that many NGO’s have raised with the RSPO is its lack of ability to properly enforce rules, and the danger that RSPO membership is becoming a way for palm oil producers to present to the buying public a veneer of sustainability without any actual desire to produce their palm oil sustainably.  In 2009, controversy arose in New Zealand after Cadbury began putting palm oil in its popular dairy milk bars, prompting a public backlash by consumers and conservationists in the country. Cadbury eventually relented, and announced it would revert to using traditional cocoa butter, but assured consumers that all the palm oil they used was certified and sustainably produced, because it had independent GreenPalm certification. While for many this would be reassuring, closer examination revealed that the palm oil used was most likely not sustainable; as mentioned in the paragraph above, GreenPalm certificates are given if a plantation proves they are producing palm oil sustainably. However, this just means that the company has at least one sustainable plantation, and the GreenPalm certificate issued can be sold old to another company. The palm oil produced on that certified plantation is not sold or kept separately; it is simply put in to the same tanker as the unsustainably sourced palm oil, and shipped to manufacturers. In essence, the GreenPalm certificate does not guarantee consumers are consuming sustainable palm oil (The Guardian, 2009).

In 2009, First Resources, a Hong Kong based palm oil company and member of the RSPO, was found by the NGO International Animal Rescue to be clearing land illegally in West Kalimantan, and was responsible for a number of orangutan deaths, and for the capture of infant orangutans. After these orangutans were rescued, an official complaint was made to the RSPO. While this company does not have any of its plantations certified as being sustainable, its membership of the RSPO states it must adhere to the Principles and Criteria of the organisation. Although the RSPO agreed to look in to the matter, three years later First Resources are still a member of the RSPO, there is no mention of the complaint on the RSPO website, and the company is free to advertise its membership of the RSPO on its own website, under its commitment to sustainability initiatives, even though it has made no effort whatsoever to behave sustainably. While the difference between being an RSPO member and having your production being RSPO certified are two very different things, for consumers, this is not always clear, and for many, the RSPO is a smokescreen, behind which palm oil producers sit (RAN, 2011).

The RSPO, in response, points out that it is a voluntary organisation, and is limited in its capacity to fully sanction companies that break its rules. It also must deal with the competing interests of the palm oil producers and distributers that are among its members. In 2011, IOI Group, one of Malaysia’s leading producers of palm oil, was reported to the RSPO by a number of NGO’s after evidence was collated showing IOI was responsible for illegally clearing large tracts of forest in Kalimantan. The RSPO responded by announcing that the company had breached its code of conduct, and granted it a limit by which time it must provide answers to the accusations. Although there was criticism that the RSPO had not done more, the fact that it had publicly criticised an RSPO member was rare, and came a year after the RSPO had publicly rebuked PT Smart Tbk and its parent company Golden-Agri Resources for breaches of the RSPO rules, the first time it had done so (Reuters, 2010). While these actions were welcomed by conservationists, they angered the Malaysian government and palm oil body, who in 2011 announced plans to form its own sustainable palm oil regulatory body, implying that the RSPO was becoming too strict (Mongabay, 2011). While this has been interpreted by some as a sign that Malaysian, and Indonesian, palm oil producers are becoming increasingly aware of the issue of sustainable palm oil, it is feared that if companies pull away from the RSPO, it would make the industries only recognised regulatory body largely irrelevant.

Although it needs improvement, the RSPO is currently the only organisation able to regulate an industry that poses the greatest threat to orangutan populations in the wild. As the use of palm oil increases and a greater threat is placed on desirable lowland tropical forests, it is more imperative than ever that business leaders are encouraged to behave in an environmentally responsible way, and suppliers are put under pressure, by both NGO’s and individual members of the public, to ensure the palm oil they use in their products does not come from plantations established at the expense of rainforests and endangered species.




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Brown, E. & Jacobson, M. (2005). Cruel Oil: How palm oil harms health, rainforest & wildlife. Center for science in the public interest.

FAO. (2008). Small-scale palm oil processing in Africa. Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, Rome

Greenpeace. (2009). Illegal forest clearance and RSPO greenwash: Case studies of Sinar Mas. Greenpeace

The Guardian. (2009). 'Green palm oil' claims land Cadbury's in sticky chocolate mess. The Guardian, UK

Kubota E., Mayo, J., O'Brien, K., Rocheleau, A. & Watthanakornchai, K. (2009). Palm oil processing recommendations to support new life project for underprivileged children. Worcester Polytechnic Institute & Chulalongkorn University, BSc project

Mongabay (2011). Malaysian government to launch RSPO rival for palm oil certification. Mongabay 

Nantha, H.S. & Tisdell, C. (2009). The orangutan-oil palm conflict: economic constraints & opportunities for conservation. Biodiversity & Conservation, Vol. 18, Issue 2, pp. 487-502

RAN. (2011). The Great RSPO Membership Myth: Why Buying from RSPO Members Is Meaningless. Rainforest Action Network.

Reuters. (2010). Sustainable palm oil body censures Indonesia's PT SMART. Reuters