Deforestation and palm oil: your questions answered

In 2018, the Minister of Primary Industries of Malaysia Teresa Kok made a pledge that no forest would be cleared for new palm oil production in the country. In 2023, Deputy Prime Minister Fadillah reiterated the same commitment in response to a new EU law that aims to ban the import of commodities linked to deforestation, especially palm oil. But what do these pledges actually mean in practice? 

Why do companies clear tropical forests for palm oil?

Palm oil makes money — it’s a relatively cheap oil to produce that has wiggled its way into tons of cosmetic and food products. Oil palm trees only grow in a relatively narrow latitude around the equator, the same areas where tropical forests grow. Southeast Asia produces at least 80% of the world’s palm oil. The trees have a 25 year commercial life cycle, which means they have to be chopped and replanted every quarter century. This is an energy intensive process, and the new trees aren’t ready for commercial production for about 7 years. 

Clearing land for new plantations, often to the detriment of local communities, forest species, and the fight against catastrophic climate change, can be very profitable for companies. A capitalist mindset of development might view forests as unused land just waiting to be made into profit. They might call previously logged forests “degraded”, and use that to justify clear-cutting for oil palm trees. This dangerous way of thinking can be devastating to biodiversity and to local communities.

Are deforestation pledges working?

It’s true that deforestation for oil palm plantations has slowed down in Indonesia and Malaysia in recent years, and this is a good thing. But it certainly has not come to a stop, and researchers are not sure if this is a permanent shift or a brief pause. Some companies have indeed adopted zero-deforestation policies and other companies have simply run out of forest to clear in the places where they operate. 

If global demand for palm oil stays high then companies will likely find ways around deforestation pledges to keep supply flowing. The big corporations do this by moving to other countries with less red tape, and others find loopholes in the legislation — like clearing land considered to be already “damaged” by fires or historic logging. Or they simply lie about what is happening on the ground

It is especially easy for companies to pledge they won’t clear primary or previously unlogged forest in places like Malaysia, where only 15% of tree cover is primary forest. Indonesia similarly declared a moratorium on clearing primary forest, yet they were subsequently in the top four countries for rainforest loss due to clearing secondary forest. Secondary forests are still rich with biodiversity and provide essential cultural, nutritional and medicinal resources to the Indigenous communities who call them home. Plus, these forests can recover. It is just as important that we protect secondary forests. 

How about sustainable palm oil?

It’s clear that these pledges are meaningless when companies continue to operate with impunity and greenwashing is rampant. Certifications like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) attempt to control deforestation and human rights abuses. Unfortunately, so-called sustainable palm oil can’t always be trusted to be deforestation-free. In their in-depth investigations, Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network have repeatedly called out the RSPO and MSPO for greenwashing, finding that even when their members have cleared land without permits or committed serious labor rights abuses they are still allowed to label their products as sustainable. 

Many argue that voluntary certification schemes are not working. As Clare Oxborrow from Friends of the Earth put it, “While there are palm oil certification schemes in place, these are not legally accountable and don’t necessarily guarantee that the palm oil used in products is sustainably sourced. For far too long, the palm oil industry and national governments have failed to clean up the supply chain. Instead of voluntary certification, we urgently need laws strong enough to protect rainforests and  their precious wildlife, and local communities.”

What are some of the potential solutions to solve this problem?

Not all palm oil is evil, and millions of jobs depend on the industry. Many communities we work with have some small-scale oil palm planted around their village as an important source of income. Some producers are changing the way things are done by integrating more diverse cropping systems instead of monocrop schemes. Others are reducing or eliminating the amount of chemicals used to help keep soil and waterways healthy. Some are even rewilding plantations in order to connect wildlife corridors and national parks. 

There are many creative minds working to make the commodity more sustainable, but these examples are generally small-scale and rarely make it into international markets. While deforestation continues to make way for more oil palm, the best thing you can do is support initiatives to create deforestation-free policies in your community or country. The EU, for example, has recently implemented the Deforestation-Free Regulation (EUDR), which aims to prevent products and commodities linked to deforestation and forest degradation from being placed onto the EU market. We don’t yet know what the impact will be from this regulation, but we hope that it positively influences practices on the ground.

Beyond policy change, it never hurts to limit your consumption by purchasing more sustainable alternatives and reading the label. But at the end of the day, larger systemic change is imperative to stop deforestation from oil palm expansion.