Reevaluating The Palm Oil Industry In Indonesia

On September 20th, Indonesian president Joko Widodo declared that existing palm oil plantations in Indonesia will be reviewed. He also paused the creation of new plantations by signing a three year moratorium. Widodo told The Associated Press that the moratorium is intended to provide time to clarify the legal rights of smallholders and villagers and resolve environmental issues as many plantations are established inside natural forests. This decision was initially announced in 2015, a particularly devastating year for the nation’s ecology due to rampant forest fires.

This decision is important because of the enormous environmental and political effects of the palm oil industry. According to the WorldWatch Institute, Indonesia is currently the word’s leading supplier of palm oil. Although it brings some economic benefits by providing employment opportunities in rural communities, the WorldWatch Institute also warns of the industry’s dangerous consequences as it contributes to the displacement of tropical forests, harms endangered species, uproots communities, and releases gases linked with global warming. A Greenpeace International assessment of the palm oil industry claimed that 40% of the deforestation it causes occurs in Papua, Indonesia. Greenpeace International also linked the palm oil industry to the significant decrease in the Bornean orangutan population over the past 16 years and the 2015 forest fires.

Indonesia’s deforestation for palm oil production has also affected residents, creating tension in the country and becoming a major human rights issue. The Guardian reported that thousands of communities have had conflict with palm oil companies and the state as a result of unsustainable and exploitative practices. The Guardian also reported corruption regarding land allocation and the absence of law enforcement to resolve disputes. According to Al Jazeera, these practices have been protested by local communities.

Critics have argued that this decision is not enough to curb environmental destruction and address these political issues. In particular, Greenpeace International has argued that an outright ban on deforestation for palm oil is necessary. They noted that the moratorium only applies to land controlled by the government’s Ministry of Forestry, leaving millions of unprotected hectares of rainforest. According to a BBC report, others have suggested that palm oil may in fact prove to be more sustainable because it does not require as many pesticides or fertilizers and is more efficient to grow than other oil crops. In an attempt to chart a course between these opposing viewpoints, The United Nations Development Programme has established an initiative to develop sustainable palm oil. This initiative has attempted to limit deforestation and empower independent smallholders.

Although the debate on how to resolve these issues is far from over, Widodo’s proposed actions seem to be a step towards a sustainable and equitable solution. The industry’s issues are inherently international as Indonesia’s palm oil is sold globally. According to the Guardian, the palm oil industry’s frontier is encroaching more remote areas of Southeast Asia and West Africa. These regions are likely to be susceptible to similar issues, which would lead to further environmental devastation and exploitation. For this reason, the international community has a responsibility to continue pressuring the Indonesian government to establish equitable, transparent, and sustainable practices and limit palm oil use to alleviate these issues in the meantime. The needs of Indonesian residents, farmers, and consumers must be considered to adequately resolve this issue.