Palm Oil Disputes Overshadowing Real Issues

ABC Radio Australia

It’s a multi-billion dollar industry, credited with helping millions in Malaysia and Indonesia escape poverty.

But, the palm oil industry often finds itself embroiled in controversy. Conservation groups accuse palm oil producers of putting profits before the environment, especially deforestation for new plantations. Producers in turn accuse environmentalists of “green-washing” companies with misinformation.

Presenter: Helene Hofman
Speakers: Alan Oxley, Chairman, World Growth; Belinda Fletcher, Forrest Campaigner, Greenpeace; Dr Paul Nelson, School of Environmental and Earth Sciences, James Cook University


HOFMAN: When it comes to palm oil, there are several sides ready to weigh in on the debate. The industry is lauded for providing a cheap, versatile solution to meet the rising demand for vegetable oil and panned for destroying hectares of fragile forests. Environmental groups have spent the last few years urging multinationals to stop buying palm oil from companies who they accuse of mass deforestation. They’ve already convinced Unilever, Kraft, Nestle and, just this month, Burger King.

But World Growth, a US-based NGO campaigning in favour of free markets as a means of promoting growth and ending poverty, has issued a statement accusing groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth of basing their campaigns on unfounded claims.

Former Australian Trade Ambassador Alan Oxley, is the chairman of World Growth.

OXLEY: Greenpeace is actually running a global campaign which is aimed at restricting the trade of Indonesia and Malaysia. The broad allegation is that these industries are destroying the forests. The grim reality is that 60 to 70 per cent of the removal forests in south-east Asia is caused by poor people who don’t have livelihoods and this is simply disregarded by Greenpeace and WWF. But the real reform that needs to be encouraged is to encourage companies to practice sustainable forestry and sustainable plantations. The very irony of this is the companies that Greenpeace attacks are the large companies who actually follow these practices. Where there practices aren’t followed in among small holders and these are the people who are desperate to clear land for food. They’re the very people who’s standards of living need to be raised and the Greenpeace campaign is not helping them at all. It’s actually working against the environmental goal.

HOFMAN: But Greenpeace says it supports World Growth’s view that the palm oil industry should be used to alleviate poverty.

And Greenpeace forest campaigner Belinda Fletcher raises concerns about Mr Oxley’s own interests in the industry:

FLETCHER: It’s worth bearing in mind that Alan Oxley who heads up World Growth is well known his association with some of the biggest forest destroyers on the planet so it’s probably worth putting that perspective on all of this.

HOFMAN: Alan Oxley admits he works as a consultant for companies tied to the forestry industry, but insists his role with World Growth is about poverty eradication and not advancing the interests of the industry giants.

Greenpeace forest campaigner Belinda Fletcher insists that goal shouldn’t take precedence over protecting the environment.

FLETCHER: To be clear, Greenpeace is not anti-palm oil, what we’re against is deforestation. At the moment there are irresponsible companies driving the destruction of the rainforest and the destruction of peat land which is driving climate change and pushing species and many of millions of people who live and depend on those rainforests and causing big problems. So Greenpeace is very much in favour of a sustainable industry but that’s got to involve no further forest destruction and the protection of peat land in Indonesia.

HOFMAN: Both Greenpeace, World Growth and dozens of other stakeholders, including NGOs, oil palm producers, processors, traders and retailers are part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or the R-S-P-O. The roundtable was created back in 2004, with the goal of developing and implementing global standards for sustainable palm oil. However, the two factions have been accused of letting their differences get in the way of progress.

Dr Paul Nelson from the School of Environmental and Earth Sciences, James Cook University has worked with the RSPO. He says coming to a compromise is essential, as the demand for vegetable oil is increasing fast and palm oil is the most obvious solution.

NELSON: What often gets lost in the argument is that oil palm itself is not an environmentally damaging crop. There is a bit of a perception that’s played on by some groups that oil palm is a bad crop, which is easily disproven. The real contentious issue is land use change and mostly from forest so there is controversy there and there are some justified arguments from both sides. A lot of the big companies have nothing to lose and a lot of them are using best practices. I mean there are cases where people are doing illegal things and they are clearing primary productive or

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