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Not clear cut: Scientists and journalists pursue a nuanced perspective on palm oil

Webinar highlights importance of science reporting
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Oil palm plantation at the border of an intact forest in Jambi, Indonesia. CIFOR/Iddy Farmer

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Palm oil has long been a polarizing topic in national and international media –  frequently painted either as a critical source of low-cost vegetable oil and a godsend to numerous tropical economies; or as a dangerous force of deforestation, pollution, labor exploitation, cultural and biodiversity decline.

But the reality of what this commodity is — and could be — for communities, countries, consumers and ecosystems, is far more nuanced than what many headlines suggest.

To create more sustainable wide-scale solutions, it is critical to explore opportunities in the “grey areas” of large-scale, high-profit international supply chains such as this one, according to a recent webinar discussion.

As part of a series addressing palm oil issues from a scientific perspective, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) — through its Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes (OPAL) project — and the Society of Indonesian Science Journalists (SISJ), hosted a discussion entitled “Palm oil: Beyond controversy – What science says about palm oil and what journalists have found.”

Jaboury Ghazoul, a tropical ecologist at Swiss university ETH Zurich and OPAL project co-founder, described the role of scientists working in the palm oil sector as one that not only  provides new evidence, new knowledge, collects data and build models, “but… also to facilitate discussions across many different actors who are often in conflict.”

He shared some examples of OPAL project work — interactive models that explore various oil palm management scenarios through role-playing games that help diverse actors in landscapes and supply chains to see each other’s perspectives and “move towards solutions that are not only acceptable to one or two parties, but to everybody,” he said.

CIFOR scientist Ahmad Dermawan added to the discussion by describing how some of these win-win solutions are being developed and applied in the Indonesian context.

He presented some of CIFOR’s work on sectoral performance issues — namely, conflicts over land and benefit flows; gaps between levels of production by plantations and small-scale producers; and detrimental environmental impacts — and the ways in which various governance arrangements are helping to resolve some of these issues.

Taking a broader perspective, Erik Meijaard, co-chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Oil Palm Taskforce, presented some of the latest global data on palm oil’s contribution to both economies and environmental issues: particularly in comparison to other vegetable oils.

“People still underestimate the major role that oils play in our daily lives, whether it’s for foods, for cosmetics, surfactants, or biodiesel, and a whole bunch of other things,” Meijaard said, explaining that oil palm is currently the most efficient vegetable-oil producer — meaning that if its production were to be banned and other oils to be used instead, the land-use requirements of this kind of production shift would have considerable implications.

“In a time in the future when land is scarce and needs to be very carefully allocated to either conservation of biodiversity and environmental services, or to food production, or other needs,” he said, “we need to be really careful about which crops we choose for that, so that the minimum amount of land is needed with the least negative environmental impacts and the greatest socio-economic benefits.”

Meijaard expressed a hope that, given oil palm plantation expansion is currently slowing down in many parts of the globe, “this more stable situation will allow governments and producers and others to start working on a more stable system, where we can fine tune things like biodiversity management and social conflict issues much more carefully than during the phase when the sector was expanding so rapidly.”

Despite this optimism, the consequences of the industry’s expansion on some local and Indigenous communities also need to be acknowledged, and these were explored in detail during the webinar, too. Irma Tambunan, a journalist for Indonesian newspaper Kompas Daily who is based in Jambi province on the island of Sumatra, spoke about how oil palm expansion had affected the Orang Rimba Indigenous people — half of their living space has been converted to oil palm monoculture.

“On the one hand, the opening of oil palm plantations is a sign of development in the region,” said Tambunan, but on the other, it disrupted the livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples, he added pointing out that if the Orang Rimba are asked today “where is your home?” they will say, “our home is this forest, but this forest is not what we hoped. Our forest was a living space as well as a site for building culture – but it’s largely gone now.”

Crossing over the Indian Ocean and the African continent to a place where the oil palm plant itself is indigenous — Cameroon — journalist Joseph Mbeng Boum, who writes for the weekly journal Echos Santé, shared some of the nuances of the palm oil sector’s impact there. Oil palm has been grown commercially in the country since 1908 and has scaled up considerably in the past 20 years, although not without controversy. “Many conservationists and scientists, and most of the public, consider it to be one of the greatest threats to tropical biodiversity, while many others — especially oil palm producers, the government and communities living off the cultivation — benefit from high agricultural and financial returns from these plants,” he said.

Reflecting some of the earlier comments by Ghazoul and Dermawan, Mbeng Boum emphasized the importance of improving planning and governance processes in order to maximize positive impacts for oil palm cultivation in Cameroon.

“The government needs to deliver a comprehensive strategy catered to bridging the rapid expansion and sustainable development of the sector,” he said. “To do so, it is essential to engage all actors involved.”

While science can play a useful role in informing this process, Mbeng Boum highlighted that many local actors in the Cameroonian context don’t have a lot of trust in scientists, and believe their input should not surpass that of stakeholders and populations that understand the reality on the ground.

Taking that caution into account, moderator Dewa Safitri of SISJ summarized the webinar — following a selection of questions from participants — by drawing attention to the critical role of science reporting in the oil palm sector, both in terms of building up faith in scientific processes and actors, and of informing the sector’s ongoing development with as much comprehensive, inclusive and multidisciplinary knowledge as possible.

She expressed a hope — which seemed universal across the selection of panelists — that this could help to generate a more sustainable and prosperous future for the landscapes and communities in which oil palm plays a role.

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For more information on this topic, please contact Heru Komarudin at H.Komarudin@cgiar.org.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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