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This week in London, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is meeting for its annual conference. Malaysia is one of the world’s largest palm oil producers, and many Malaysian companies are long-serving members of the RSPO, which was founded by the environmental NGO, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The positive case for palm oil is, unfortunately, little known in Britain. The fact that palm oil is the most productive, and most land-efficient oilseed crop is not widely understood. This means, for example, that oil palm produces the same amount of oil as soybean but uses 10 times less land. Yes, a factor of 10. When we talk in the region of millions of tonnes of oils being needed each year, that is a lot of land saved by planting palm oil. Palm oil’s health properties are also often overlooked – palm oil has been credited by leading nutritionists with reducing dangerous trans fats in the Western diet (palm oil is a perfect, and much healthier, replacement).

The most important socio-economic fact about palm oil, though, is the presence of small farmers, such as the 200,000 in Malaysia alone. Small farmers represent almost 40 per cent of the palm oil land in Malaysia – the industry is made out of a happy blend of larger plantation groups, and small farmer cooperatives. It is a classic win-win: small farmers have provided a backbone for the industry to grow and succeed, and at the same time, families and communities across Malaysia have been lifted from poverty into prosperity, thanks to the benefits of palm oil cultivation.

Only around half of all RSPO-certified palm oil is currently being bought. Producers in Malaysia and elsewhere have spent valuable time, effort and money to ensure certification – but the companies in Europe are not buying RSPO-certified oil, which means that the investment from Malaysian producers is not being repaid.

RSPO is one of many organizations in Europe attempting to communicate about palm oil. Unfortunately, more radical forces are currently in the ascendance. The for-profit NGO, The Forest Trust (TFT), is lobbying for ‘No Deforestation’ policies that go well beyond RSPO. Several major companies, including Unilever, have signed up. As with many simple slogans, ‘No Deforestation’ sounds appealing at first glance, but is in fact far more complicated.

Small farmers are those who will be affected by the new campaign. The TFT standards require costly administration and monitoring, which small farmers simply cannot afford. One major European company has already admitted that 80 per cent of its small farmers will be ‘culled’ from the supply chain as a result of the complex and expensive ‘No Deforestation’ standards.

Small farmers should not be suffering at the hands of environmental campaigns. Some NGOs simply have the wrong set of priorities. The United Nations clearly sets out that sustainable development is based on economic, social and environmental progress. Small farmers in Malaysia provide all three: but TFT only wants to focus on the environmental. This is harmful, and short-sighted.

The challenge for the members of RSPO this week, and the challenge for all Western companies in relation to palm oil is: what will you do? Small farmers, who make up a large percentage of palm oil production, and for whom the crop is a valuable lifeline, should not be sacrificed on an altar of NGO one-upmanship. How will RSPO ensure that small farmers can genuinely participate and be recognized, rather than – at present – shut out due to the over-representation of Western commercial and NGO interests?

It is not easy to know the answer for those RSPO delegates attending this week. For small farmers, an answer may be presenting itself independently – the Malaysian Government is poised to announce a new, national certification scheme that will include both larger plantation companies, and small farmers. The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil standard (MSPO) will bring together strong legal protections and regulations on oil palm cultivation, into one national standard. MSPO can give confidence both to small farmers – that their contribution is recognized, and that their place in supply chains is respected – and to Western consumers – that the palm oil in their products has been produced responsibly.

Malaysian palm oil producers, both the larger plantations and the small farmers, are proud to produce palm oil, and proud of the responsible production in place methods across Malaysia. This includes strong environmental protection. The Malaysian Government promised, at the UN Earth Summit in Rio, to maintain a minimum of 50% forest cover. That commitment was made in 1992, and it is still being comfortably achieved today. This is sustainable development – bringing together economic, social and environmental protections. Small farmers of palm oil, and the new MSPO standard, are living proof that it is possible. We just need to get the word out.

Source : The Huffington Post

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