Can Palm Oil Go Sustainable in Indonesia?

Can Palm Oil Go Sustainable in Indonesia?

Global food companies are asking newly elected Indonesian President Joko Widodo to support their zero deforestation commitments with legislation and policy. Indonesia is a key global actor in reducing emissions from deforestation, and their request comes just before international discussion turns to climate change actions, such as REDD+, during the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP20) for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, Indonesia, one of the partners of the Global Forum on Agriculture Research (GFAR), has recently distilled four years of global comparative studies on REDD+ into five fact sheets. REDD+, which stands Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation plus, pays local governments to manage forests where palm oil and other commodities are harvested aiming to reduce carbon emissions caused by deforestation. REDD+ has been under negotiation at the UNFCCC since 2005.

According to CIFOR, deforestation contributes to 10 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions, while standing forests remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it. In Indonesia and other countries, forests are often cleared, sometimes illegally, to make way for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is commonly used in household products and processed foods, including pizza dough, bread, and chocolate.

CIFOR highlights the importance of finding sustainable ways of harvesting palm oil due to its importance in global trade and rural development.

They are not alone. Over the last nine months, 60 percent of the palm oil trade has committed to go deforestation free. This includes Wilmar, Golden Agri-Resources, and Cargill, three of the biggest palm oil companies. They are also joining the Indonesian Business Council to ask for Widodo’s support in ensuring the palm oil industry goes sustainable.

The global companies are supporters of the New York Declaration on Forests signed in September. The latest joiners include Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme. The declaration's commitments would reduce carbon emissions by more than the United States emits annually and are meant to set the tone for the COP negotiations.

According to an article in The Economist, Widodo will face the challenges of decentralized government—the same challenges faced by past Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who imposed a moratorium on new palm oil production in 2009.

“So many of our peat forests are slated for conversion to palm oil, and people have made investments based on those concessions…” said Indonesia’s REDD+ director Heru Prasetyo. “So we have to engineer a land-swap. This means identifying degraded land that could be used for palm oil and trying to see if there is a way to persuade the people who have palm-oil concessions to switch over.” 

However, Indonesian officials must convince most of the industry, which was granted permission by local authorities over whom the central government has little control.

Furthermore, CIFOR’s findings suggest that REDD+ policies must take into account adaptation and not just mitigation. Adaptation considers local needs, while mitigation considers global goals. Adaptation actions are more likely to have local acceptance, while donors will appreciate adaptation projects that include global mitigation.

“A REDD+ project is more likely to be sustainable and its carbon storage to be permanent if it incorporates adaptation measures for communities and forest ecosystems; if adaptation is not considered, the harmful effects of climate change could jeopardize project outcomes,” according to the CIFOR publication.

If designed correctly, mitigations such as REDD+, could diversify local incomes, increase social services, create stronger local institutions, and help people to be resilient to the effects of climate change, said the publication. CIFOR warns, however, that REDD+ could also harm local communities if a project limits local access and rights to land or increases dependence on an insecure source of outside funding.

CIFOR findings also indicate that there is a risk of unfairly distributed benefits for stakeholders, possibly rewarding those who benefited from deforestation and marginalizing those who protect the forests, often indigenous people.

According to the CIFOR findings, policies set by nations, such as Indonesia, or international policies negotiated at the COP20, should support projects that integrate both mitigation and adaptation. 

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