Essay | Implementing obligatory sustainable certification programs for palm oil production

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Biodiversity, Conservation, Storyfest 2024, Sustainability

The production and trade of palm oil have significant environmental and social implications. Unsustainable palm oil production exacerbates global climate change. Developing countries, which often lack resources to address climate change issues adequately, bear the brunt of its impacts.

By advocating for sustainability certification programs, we uphold the ethical imperative to minimize harm, promote justice, and act as responsible global citizens.

Unsustainable palm oil production poses significant ethical challenges and has far-reaching consequences that affect the environment, society, and global responsibility. Palm oil, widely used in food, cosmetics, and biofuels industries, has become a highly profitable commodity, driving extensive expansion of plantations. This trend is corroborated by sources such as “Oil Palm in Indonesia” authored by John D. Watts and Silvia Irawan in 2018. However, the rapid growth of the palm oil industry has come at a grave cost.

One of the primary ethical concerns of unsustainable palm oil production lies in its severe environmental impact. Palm oil is not only bad for the climate — as their forest habitat is cleared, endangered species such as the orangutan, Borneo elephant and Sumatran tiger are being pushed closer to extinction. This loss of biodiversity raises moral questions about our responsibility to protect and preserve other living beings on Earth.

According to Efeca Briefing Note, deforestation for palm oil also contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating climate change and its associated moral risks. The degradation of peatlands, often cleared for palm oil cultivation, releases large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. The adverse effects of climate change disproportionately affect vulnerable communities in developing countries, which often lack the resources and adaptive capacity to cope with the consequences. 

The palm oil industry’s expansion creates economic disparities, particularly when small-scale farmers are pushed out by large plantation companies, leading to monopolization. Small farmers may be forced to adopt unsustainable practices to compete or find alternative livelihoods, exacerbating environmental and social issues. The unequal distribution of benefits and profits within the industry raises questions about justice and equitable development.

The lack of transparency in palm oil supply chains allows for unsustainable practices to persist without proper scrutiny. Following the investigation of the Rainforest Action Network  a big number of palm oil-producing companies source from suppliers engaged in illegal and environmentally damaging activities, such as land grabbing, deforestation, and peatland drainage, and human rights violations. This lack of accountability in supply chains hinders efforts to trace the origin of palm oil products and makes it challenging for consumers and stakeholders to make informed decisions based on ethical considerations. Consumers who want to make ethical choices may find it difficult to identify products that are genuinely sustainable and produced with respect for the environment and human rights.

As Rainforest Rescue states, in 2021, approximately 66.7 million acres of rainforest had been cleared for palm oil production globally. According to Rainforest Rescue, “Forests and human settlements have been destroyed and replaced by “green deserts” containing virtually no biodiversity on an area the size of New Zealand.”

Palm oil plantations often replace diverse and ecologically valuable forests, leading to a significant loss of biodiversity, while the use of pesticides and fertilizers in palm oil production lead to soil and water pollution. Obligatory sustainable certification programs can help protect biodiversity by promoting the adoption of practices that preserve existing forests, conserve wildlife habitats, and promote reforestation efforts. 

Besides, unsustainable palm oil production is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating climate change because clearing forests releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to draining peatlands.

What is more, palm oil cultivation requires significant amounts of water, leading to water scarcity and contamination, and generates considerable waste.

Multiple sources, for example, International Labour Rights Forum report serious violations of workers’ rights in palm oil production, including forced labor, child labor, harassment, violence against human rights defenders, and discrimination against women. Safe and fair working conditions are lacking, emphasizing the necessity of sustainable certification programs to address these issues.

Many smallholders in the supply chain are subject to untransparent agreements that burden them with unexpected debts and unfair remuneration for their products. For instance, Nestlé purchases palm oil from mills in Sabah state, Malaysia, as Swiss NGO Solidar Suisse reported. The report highlighted ruthless exploitation and forced labor on the oil palm plantations, where a significant portion of the workforce, approximately 840,000 people, are illegal immigrants from Indonesia, including up to 200,000 children, earning wages below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line.

As the Forest People Programme funded by the UK Government states, in Indonesia, about half of the palm oil labor force is women. Palm oil companies contribute to discrimination and violence against women by failing to prevent sexual violence by their employees. They also contribute to other rights violations that disproportionately affect women.

Smallholders and Indigenous populations who have inhabited and protected the forest for generations are often brutally driven from their land. Human rights violations are everyday occurrences, even on supposedly “sustainable” and “organic” plantations. For example, Forest People Programme funded by the UK Government concluded that in 2010, the Indonesian government’s National Land Bureau reported that it had recorded 4,000 land conflicts across the archipelago in the palm oil sector. According to Forest People Program, “In Liberia, it is estimated that 40% of the population reside inside concessions for rubber, oil palm, forestry, and the extractive sector.” Nestlé buys palm oil from Exportadora del Atlantico in Honduras. The palm oil mill in the Aguan Valley has been implicated in a violent land conflict, with accusations of involvement in the killings of at least 140 people. 

Companies frequently violate the cultural rights of Indigenous peoples by destroying sacred sites, cultural artifacts, or monuments, causing the loss of intangible cultural heritage, and preventing communities from practicing traditional livelihoods.

In conclusion, implementing and enforcing obligatory sustainable certification programs for palm oil production is crucial to mitigate the moral risks associated with climate change, addressing environmental protection, workers’ rights, and social responsibility, and promoting a more sustainable and equitable global trade market.

Certification programs will promote responsible business practices that benefit communities, promote social well-being, and contribute to inclusive development. Furthermore, certification programs should encourage transparency and accountability in corporate practices. Companies are required to disclose their social and environmental performance, fostering trust and enabling consumers to make informed choices.

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