Thursday, September 28, 2023

Deforestation and the Palm Oil Industry

Joko Supriyono & Fadhil Hasan
June 4, 2021 | 2:42 pm
A worker collects palm oil fruits at a state-run plantation in Bogor, West Java, on Jan. 6, 2021. (B1 Photo/Mohammad Defrizal)
A worker collects palm oil fruits at a state-run plantation in Bogor, West Java, on Jan. 6, 2021. (B1 Photo/Mohammad Defrizal)

Our president’s success on deforestation has been a country-wide effort.

The government — particularly President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo — has recently won significant praise from international observers for its success in reducing Indonesia's deforestation rates.

The reduction — to what are now the lowest rates on record — deserves to be applauded by governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other groups worldwide. Unilever’s Paul Polman, the Economist, and even the World Economic Forum have heaped praise on the country’s deforestation efforts.

However, we are yet to see governments congratulate Jokowi — or Indonesia more broadly — for reversing a trend that had been demanded by so many in Western capitals. Surely, by now, they should have celebrated the successful policy in those same capitals.


Why is this not the case?

For the past 15 years or more, Western critics and institutions have focused on very Western-oriented solutions, even though their partner countries like Indonesia had different socio-economic needs.

For instance, Bali's 2007 UN climate summit named timber — not food and agriculture — to be the main reason for cutting down forests.

The outcome following the summit was an over-simplistic solution of Western countries paying tropical countries to leave forests standing. Before long, it became apparent that this silver bullet solution would need to go back to the drawing board. Primarily because this "solution" was not producer-led.

The reductions in deforestation under President Jokowi have been driven by Indonesia, not by any global summits or Western-led initiatives. This is a huge achievement that deserves more recognition.

As the leader of this transformation, the president deserves the praise he is receiving.

On the ground, it has been a joint effort by the president, his ministries, civil society groups, and the private sector. This environmental success story could not have happened without the commitment and drive of the Indonesian palm oil community.

If international NGOs are reluctant to congratulate the president for his efforts, they are even more reluctant to praise the palm oil sector for its achievements. It has been a story of collaboration and discussion: a mature approach that many of the loud anti-palm oil voices in the West could learn from.

The moratorium on oil palm expansion that the President first announced saw some degree of trepidation by the palm oil community. The uneasiness stemmed from the lack of predictability in the Indonesian palm sector for several years.

Nonetheless, a long consultation between the palm oil community representatives and the government resulted in legislation that palm oil leaders recognized as a considerable opportunity for Indonesian palm oil and Indonesia in the broader sense.

Working with the government, it was possible to clearly identify the many underlying drivers of deforestation that the "serious" academic community had been trying to convey. Western initiatives and activists like to proclaim that the cause of deforestation was timber or palm oil. But, those with on-ground knowledge knew that the real drivers were many and varied.

That nuance may not be media-friendly, but it is essential as it is based on hard facts and research.

The drivers included problems such as gaps in inland data, which meant there was lower certainty over land tenure. Conflicting land claims would prompt social conflict and clearing land as a means of establishing "ownership."

The palm oil sector has realized that initiatives like the moratorium have contributed to better data on land titles and a reduction in conflicts and deforestation – and, therefore, better outcomes for Indonesian palm oil players.

We have also supported President Jokowi’s continuation of related initiatives, such as the One Map policy, contributing to the moratorium’s overarching objectives on reducing deforestation and cutting the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Similarly, palm oil leaders have worked closely with the government to revise the Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) standard.

ISPO implementation is key to driving down Indonesia’s deforestation rate and ensuring that palm oil broadens even further its positive social and economic impacts for all Indonesians.

ISPO’s environmental credibility is also key to increasing uptake of Indonesian palm oil in international markets, which the president has made a key objective for the revised ISPO.

The successful uptake of ISPO has made it the world’s largest palm oil sustainability certification – indeed, it will soon become the world’s largest-ever sustainability scheme for any crop.

This could not have happened without successful collaboration between the government and the palm oil community.

Critics of the President and the palm oil sector have attempted to paint this relationship as some sort of conspiracy. The rebuttal to these claims is simple and powerful: the deforestation rate is in freefall. The cooperation is delivering unprecedented results.

Our joint success shows the emptiness of Indonesia’s international critics. What are they actually contributing? While we have worked together cohesively and constructively, they have attempted to undermine everything that Indonesia is trying to achieve.

It is about time that Indonesia’s critics gave credit where it is due. This should start with less shouting about invented problems on social media and more listening to those who have solved problems in the real world.

Joko Supriyono is the chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (Gapki). Fadhil Hasan is the Senior Economist at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (Indef). 

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