Palm oil has an image problem. In the eyes of many people, it is a “villain” that has invaded and destroyed the forest and deprived small and large animals as well as indigenous populations of their homes. Palm oil is also an important factor in greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for severe air pollution problems caused by deforestation in order to grow palm trees. Taken together, there is resistance to and a campaign to stop using palm oil.
But did you know palm oil and environmentally friendly cultivation can go together?
An oil Palm plantation in Krabi, Thailand (photo GIZ Thailand)
Kanokwan Saswattecha, Project Manager for the Sustainable and Climate-Friendly Palm Oil Production and Procurement (SCPOPP) in Thailand (Photo credit: GIZ Thailand)
Kanokwan Saswattecha, Project Manager for the Sustainable and Climate-Friendly Palm Oil Production and Procurement (SCPOPP) in Thailand told us how to palm oil can be produced without destroying the environment.
“We admit that the acquisition of land for palm plantations is a reality. But we must also understand that not all palm plantations are in the forests. Therefore, we should not assume that all palm oil is the culprit.”
Kanokwan adds that in fact Thailand has a good forest protection and conservation system, and most of the new palm plantations area in the country are located on former agricultural plots, such as those once used for growing rubber and fruits, as well as abandoned rice fields. Therefore, the problem of forest encroachment to grow palm trees in Thailand is almost zero.
“Turning against palm oil without knowing whether it comes from the forest or not would result in more damage than benefit, because it would see the blocking of income pipelines for small-scale farmers in Thailand who have not invaded the forest.”
Palm oil is a threat to nature ..really?
Palm is an important and ancient crop. In the past, people used palm fruit to extract oil for cooking. And palm leaves were woven into thatch roofs and baskets. However, demand for palm oil has greatly increased over the past few decades partly because of the many benefits and the creamy texture of the oil. Another part of the demand comes from the production of palm, which occupies almost half or more than half of other crops, for oils such as soybean, rapeseed, sunflower seed, coconut, and olive.
The IUCN’s Red List report states that all three sub-species of orangutans, namely the Bornean, Sumatran and Tapanuli, are extremely endangered as a result of the destruction of forest resources and deforestation for oil palm plantations
But today the oil palm is widely criticized because it is believed that the tropical rain forest, the habitat of indigenous groups and many endangered wild animals such as tigers and orangutans in Indonesia and Malaysia, is being destroyed through clearing of the land for palm plantations.
Kanokwan sees a different side and explains that palm oil production that focuses on accelerating production alone and ignores the environment and society, is the cause of deforestation.
“Every tropical rainforest is a habitat for wildlife and plays a very important role as a carbon dioxide reservoir and a forest that produces oxygen or fresh air for us,” she says.
When palm growers neglect sustainable production, they not only destroy the home of many wild flora and fauna but also devastate the lungs of the world, thus doubling the risk of global warming.
“After cutting large trees to sell for timber, the remaining flora will be burned to clear the area before planting palm trees, causing problems of dust that will destroy our health,” she says.
Planting palm that does not damage the forest
Palm oil plant certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) does not seeing the clearing of forests with important biodiversity (such as endangered species) or fragile ecosystems. Certified palm growers must take measures to minimise soil erosion and protect water resources.
Aside from environmental concerns, palm growers must pay attention to human rights issues such as payment of the minimum wage, not using child labour and obtaining consent from the local community in advance, as well as ensuring those communities are free to live their lives and receive complete information.
Speakers reflect the feelings towards the training for farmers and agricultural extension staff in Surat Thani Province in July 2019 (Photo credit: GIZ Thailand)
“At present, Thailand has a good image in terms of palm oil production. There are no problems with encroaching on forest areas. But if Thai people remain indifferent and do not support sustainable palm oil, that image may change and Thailand may be as badly regarded as Indonesia or Malaysia.”
Today, palm oil produced according to RSPO standards around the world accounts for only 19 per cent of total production, while Thailand has fewer than 1 percent of farmers able to grow sustainable palm oil. “Most oil growers in Thailand still do not know about and lack knowledge on sustainable palm plantations”
In Thailand, 79% of growers are small farmers. (Photo credit: GIZ Thailand)
Government intervention in the country of production plays a very important role as a solution to the palm oil problem. Reliance on market forces alone is unsustainable. Kanokwan says the Thailand Oil Palm Board and relevant government agencies such as the National Bureau of Agricultural Commodity and Food Standards (Thailand) and the Thai Industrial Standards Institute (TISI) should seriously promote and develop the potential of farmers and industrial producers in the supply chain to raise the standard of palm oil production in our country to international standards and to reduce the negative impact on the forest and all of its life.
“All sectors must cooperate to solve the problem and ensure farmers grow palm sustainably. The factory should buy palm oil from sustainable production sources and must communicate this to consumers so they know too.”
Oil palm plantations and crude palm oil mills in Thailand are mainly in the southern provinces such as Krabi, Surat Thani and Chumphon and together account for 86.4 percent of the plantations in the country. (Photo credit: GIZ Thailand)
The missing ‘consumer’ role
Still missing, though, are the voices of consumers in countries that do not have a demand for sustainable palm oil. This is because they do not know that palm oil is an important ingredient found in everyday products. More than half of the food sold in supermarkets contains palm oil.
“Many consumers think that the problem of deforestation is far away from their lives and not an issue that they create. But in truth it is very close to us because more than 50 percent of the products around us, such as food and biodiesel, contain palm oil as an ingredient. The consumer can decide whether to ‘stop’ or ‘let’ the problem go on.”
Kanokwan further explains that to grow palm sustainably, a farmer needs to follow many steps and must attend training to increase his or her knowledge and skills. Getting RSPO certified requires considerable investment too,
Palm Olein Oil in Tesco (Tesco) is the first palm oil in Thailand to have received on-pack RSPO trademark and is available in supermarkets.
“Unfortunately, palm oil produced sustainably in Thailand is exported to the European market. Thais want to have the opportunity to use products that contain sustainable palm oil in our homes as well.”
Once consumers choose to buy products with the RSPO trademark, their outlay will become a profit for palm growers. This will improve the quality of life for farmers and their families as well as create incentives for sustainable palm plantations that are responsible to the environment and society.
Return profit, return good quality of life to farmers
Another role that should not be overlooked … that of oil palm farmers
The farmers who produce palm oil are at the starting point of the whole process. It is they who oversee all the processes from cultivating, fertilising and other activities related to palm plantations. The oil palm is a major player in the farmers’ lives from the time the wake up until they go to bed.
We had a chat with Khun Prakong Sakunsuan, a farmer who has been living with oil palm plantations for the last 40 years.
“In the past when we spoke about palm oil, the image we had was of vegetable oil used only in the kitchen. But today, we find products that contain palm oil in all aspects of our daily lives whether in toothpaste, shampoo, soap, lotion, cosmetics, dishwashing liquid, detergent, food, car oil and much more. And we know that we are at the very beginning of the process, “the origin of palm oil”. I think oil from my garden goes into many products.”
Palm oil is said to be an ugly plant – Prakong had heard that too. That’s because of the pictures we see of the smog, the burning forests, the deaths of wildlife in the fires. In fact, in Thailand is not like that. But as oil palm growers, we are also affected.
Khun Prakong Sakunsuan, a farmer who has been living with oil palm plantations in Krabi for some 40 years. (Photo credit: GIZ Thailand)
So how do we make oil palm a beautiful and sustainable plant?
Farmers in Thailand have now gained more knowledge about sustainable palm oil production. Many agencies such as universities and even crushing mills encourage training and keep farmers informed about the situation of palm oil. Prakong and her friends have modified their practices to be more sustainable. And she sees this as positive.
“Here we can clearly see the changes. After our training, we all go into the plantation more often. We know about the optimum fertiliser and understand how to apply it without impacting the environment. For example, if the area is near a water source, we will not apply fertiliser to prevent leaching of chemicals into the water. Also, we know that the palm leaves help cover the soil, maintain moisture, and reduce soil erosion. The knowledge gained has helped us understand and improve our plantations. We have reduced the use of chemicals a lot. This is good for the environment, for our health and make us happier in our careers.”
“We all have to help each other to take care of the environment by choosing an eco-friendly management method. I think that palm oil production in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way is a guideline that all farmers should implement, ” Prakong concludes.