What's Being Done to Stop Palm Oil Plantations from Destroying Indonesia's Rainforests?

Since VICE on HBO investigated the terrible consequences of Indonesia's palm oil industry last season, has anything changed for the better? We asked an expert if there was hope for activists on the horizon.
January 19, 2016, 5:00am

'HBO Original: Indonesia's Palm Bomb'

In anticipation of the upcoming fourth season of our HBO show, which will premiere February 5 at 11 PM, we are releasing all of season three for free online along with updates to the stories. Today's installment follows up on a segment titled "Indonesia's Palm Bomb," which investigated the damage being done to that country's rainforests by the palm oil industry.

Palm oil is everywhere. The cheap substitute for trans fats can be found in products ranging from soap to processed foods, butter to lipstick to detergent. It's primarily produced on plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, and that's the problem—for years, the palm oil industry has been destroying the rainforests in the region, sometimes breaking Indonesian laws in the process and committing acts of violence against the indigenous people who live in these places.

In the above episode of VICE, correspondent Ben Anderson traveled to the Indonesian island of Sumatra to see these effects firsthand—the rampant deforestation, the tensions between the palm oil companies and the natives fighting back against them, and the endangered species being put at risk as a result of human greed.

To see if any progress had been made in Indonesia, we got in touch with Rhett Butler, the founder and editor-in-chief of Mongabay, an environmental news and activism website.

VICE: There's been increased media coverage of the palm oil issue in recent years. Do you think that the public has become more aware that palm oil is causing these problems as a result?
Rhett Butler:We just wrapped up an analysis of eight years of media coverage of palm oil and indeed found a sharp increase in coverage globally.

Traditionally palm oil coverage has been a niche domain of business and finance publications, but that has dramatically changed as the impact of palm oil expansion has increased and larger areas of rainforests and peatlands have been destroyed. Interest from the broader public was catalyzed by environmental campaigns that focused on charismatic animals that were losing their homes to oil palm plantations: most notably orangutans in Sumatra and Borneo. It's rare to see a mainstream news article about palm oil environmental issues that doesn't mention orangutans. But the issue really exploded in Asia with Indonesia's haze crisis, which was largely driven by fires set to clear land for plantations.

Has anything changed in Indonesia since the HBO episode airs? Have there been efforts to curb the corruption and illegal deforestation?
Since VICE did its filming, there have been some significant changes in the Indonesian palm oil sector.

First, the price of palm oil has collapsed like most other commodities. While the price collapse hasn't been fully felt yet in the sector, it will almost certainly reduce investment in new plantations, especially in marginal areas, at least in the short-term. That macroeconomic development, coupled with increasing public outrage over environmental problems caused by the sector, has pushed several prominent palm oil growers and processors to adopt "zero deforestation" policies that bar palm oil sourced at the expense of forests and peatlands. The policies include safeguards for workers and require companies to seek permission from local communities prior to establishing new plantations. Some policies are stronger than others, but the fact they are being adopted is encouraging to environmental groups that have been working on the issue for a long time.

Second, elements in the Indonesian government have launched a massive push to establish a price floor for palm oil through proposed subsidies in the form of a biofuel mandate. Indonesia and Malaysia have former a cartel to develop schemes that could raise prices, perhaps overlooking the broader market trends and the fact that a lot of countries are now planting oil palm. Also within Indonesia, there is growing political pressure on companies that have made zero deforestation commitments to jettison those for much weaker standards. The argument is very familiar: environmental standards make it harder for domestic producers—especially small farmers—to compete.

A third major development was the haze crisis, which was so bad that it pushed Indonesia to finally implement some of the reforms needed to address the underlying causes of peatlands and forest destruction. Notably, President Jokowi announced a ban on planting in areas burned during the recent blazes, which is incredible given that many of the fires were set to clear land for oil palm plantations. Jokowi has mandated that these 2 million hectares be restored to natural ecosystems and appointed a capable head of the agency to carry out the commitment.

And finally there are some signs that the government may be getting serious about enforcing environmental laws. For example, Indonesia's Supreme Court just upheld a decision to fine a company $26 million for illegally destroying a peatland in the Leuser Ecosystem. And dozens of companies are being punished or investigated for their role in setting fires that sparked last year's haze.

In the documentary we see some locals who seem prepared to literally go to war with the companies taking part in this deforestation. Are tensions still high there?
There is still considerable conflict in the sector. Indonesia's Agrarian Reform Consortium just released a report finding 35 cases of companies committing violence against communities and more than 250 instances of agrarian conflicts. These numbers are across all sectors, but disputes over palm oil are certainly common. One high profile case is Maura Tae from East Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo. The community fighting against palm oil was recognized for its struggle with a UN prize.

Is there such a thing as sustainable or forest-friendly palm oil? If I'm a consumer and I want to make choices that don't support a rainforest-destroying industry, what should I do?
Some people would argue that there's no such thing as sustainable plantation agriculture. Putting that aside, there are definitely ways of producing palm oil that are less damaging, and several companies are generally moving in that direction through zero deforestation commitments, which include important environmental safeguards on top of standards developed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). First consumers should check to see whether they products they buy are produced by a company that has made a zero deforestation commitment. If the company has, let it know that you approve. If not, then ask the company what it is doing to address deforestation risk in its palm oil supply chain. Companies aren't likely do to anything unless their customers let them know the issue is important.

What is the mood of activists who have been trying to call attention to this issue and fight deforestation? Are they hopeful of reaching a critical mass soon where everyone from celebrities to the US government is denouncing palm oil plantations?
Generally I think activists have been surprised by how fast companies have taken up zero deforestation commitments. This was all a pipe dream five years ago, but now most companies that trade or consume palm oil internationally have some sort of forest policy in place. However it is still a big step to go from words to action, so environmental groups are now focusing on the more challenging issue of implementation. But, encouragingly, companies seem receptive to dialog on how to move toward greener supply chains.

That said, there is still plenty of deforestation happening for palm oil production. And it's spreading. For example, companies are clearing massive areas of primary forests in the Peruvian Amazon for new plantations. Community members who have tried to stand up to these plantations have been threatened with death. And investors are eyeing forests in New Guinea, equatorial Africa, and other parts of Latin America for plantations. The palm oil business isn't going to be controlled by Indonesia and Malaysia forever.