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UCS: 'Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto' Falls Short of a Revolution

Forest clearing for palm oil, like this in Sabah, Malaysia, destroys habitat for endangered species and contributes to climate change. | Image credit: Rhett Butler/Mongabay

The word “manifesto” rarely conjures up positive connotations. That word brings to my mind Karl Marx’s famous tome, at best, and, at worst, images of a bearded man in a remote cabin. Regardless, it’s a word most often associated with people or groups with strongly held convictions trying to shake up the status quo. It is odd then that a group of major palm oil producers and traders should use that term for a recent effort to redefine “sustainable” palm oil.

The “Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto,” released earlier this month and signed by major palm oil producing and trading companies including Sime Darby Plantation, IOI Corporation Berhad, Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad, Musim Mas Group, and Asian Agri, seems on its surface to be a major win for forest conservation. However, upon close inspection the text contains enough loopholes and vague language to allow these companies to continue destroying forest while making only modest steps towards change.

The bourgeois set their own standards

The Manifesto claims it will protect High Carbon Stock (HCS) forests, a category of forests meant to recognize and value the importance of secondary forests, but only once they agree on a definition of them. This process is expected to take 6-12 months, and will allow companies to continue clearing while the definition is being worked out. This strikes me as odd since a working definition of HCS has been around for nearly four years and has fairly broad support.

The HCS concept was first developed in collaboration with the TFT, Greenpeace, Nestlé and the major palm oil producer Golden Agri Resources (GAR) as part of a 2010 agreement for GAR and Nestlé to eliminate deforestation from their products. This process included consultation with scientists, technical experts and other stakeholders, and by most accounts was fairly robust. Nevertheless, the Manifesto companies treat HCS as if it’s a concept that they pulled out of thin air and is theirs to control.

Further, the Manifesto seems to indicate that the concept is so undeveloped that it couldn’t possibly be implemented at this point. If HCS can’t be implemented then someone should tell GAR, since it’s been implementing HCS since 2011. Development of the HCS definition and methodology is by no means finished, but a legitimate process is already underway to continue its refinement.  The fact that the Manifesto companies are ignoring the longstanding and ongoing process in favor of inventing their own strikes me as an attempt to coopt rather than cooperate.

No time like the future

So the companies are giving themselves a 12-month grace period to continue deforesting while they work on defining something that has already been defined. But then they’ll stop clearing forests, right? Wrong. Companies have the initial 12 months to develop a timeline for implementation but each company is “free to adopt a reasonable time-frame.” This leaves companies a lot of leeway to continue destroying forests, sets no deadline for ending clearing, and lacks any clear ambition compared to some of the industry leaders. When in late 2013 Wilmar, the world’s largest trader of palm oil, made a commitment to purchase deforestation-free palm oil, it committed to do so immediately and to fully implement its policy by December 2015. Again, the Manifesto provides the illusion of progress while it allows the continuation of the status quo for an indeterminate amount of time.

No means no

Another area where the manifesto falls short is on peat protections. On page one, the signatories commit to “no new development on peat lands, regardless of depth.” However, in the annex definitions, they allow for possible development of patches of less than 20 hectares, and areas above 20 hectares “will need to be independently assessed to justify development.” The Manifesto group seems to have a very different definition of “no” than the rest of us.

Escape from new commitments

And as if all of those weren’t enough, the Manifesto seems to contain an escape clause for any company that finds even these modest commitments to be too onerous. The commitment descriptions for each sector includes the clause: “The sourcing decisions and plans for implementation of the above, however, shall be unilaterally determined by each [company].”

So in summary, the Manifesto allows clearing of forests while companies develop an HCS definition, ignoring a four-year-old process and definition that has wide support by major companies and NGOs, redefines “no peat clearing” to mean “occasional peat clearing,” does not hold companies to any timeline for implementation, and finally allows companies to interpret and ignore the Manifesto as they see fit. In the end, this looks like just another attempt by the owners of the means of production to maintain the status quo and is one manifesto that is unlikely to spur a revolution in forest conservation.

This post first appeared on the Union of Concerned Scientists' The Equation blog on July 17, 2014.


As the lead analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists’s palm oil work, Calen May-Tobin conducts research on palm-related deforestation and how to reduce the land-use carbon footprint of the palm oil industry. Calen also conducts analyses for UCS'… [Read more about Calen May-Tobin]


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