After battling against what it called an unfair global campaign on its palm oil industry in 2017, Indonesia has vowed to continue the fight against one of its key economic drivers that generated more than US$17 billion exports in 2016.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said in her annual press statement on January 9 that palm oil – one of Indonesia’s main and strategic products – “faces negative campaigns and discrimination in Europe and the United States.”
“Indonesia shall not stand by idly,” she told an audience of foreign ambassadors.
She added Indonesia was stepping up its efforts to counter anti-palm oil campaigns and to promote a sustainable palm oil production with all stakeholders,including the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC).
President Joko Widodo raised the issue during the Asean-EU Summit in Manila in early November 2017 and later in the month during their annual bilateral consultation, Widodo called on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to be jointly up in arms against discriminative attitude and policies toward palm oil.
The European Parliament last April called on the European Commission to take measures to phase out by 2020 the use of vegetable oils including palm oil, which the parliament said has caused deforestation. The parliament also notes that biofuel imported into the EU, 23% is derived from palm oil and most of it is from Indonesia.
The palm oil industry in Indonesia has also been blamed for rights violations including child labor, seasonal forest fires that sends choking haze to neighboring countries, and rapid loss of biodiversity and natural habitats of some of the world’s most endangered species such as the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger.
Greenpeace has slammed the government for being so defensive towards EU’s stance. The group said as a party to the 2016 Paris climate accord, Indonesia should not view EU policies as detrimental to the industry and the economy.
“The government should be ashamed that deforestation, forest burning, land grabs and exploitative work system still occur. Land expansion is also ongoing not just in Sumatra and Kalimantan but it has encroached on forests in Papua,” Ade Komarudin, Greenpeace Indonesia’s forest campaigner said in a statement.
Citing data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Komarudin said palm oil plantations had expanded from 8.3 million hectare in 2010 to 12.3 million in 2017, encroaching on more protected forest and peatlands.
In a bid to show that palm oil industry in Indonesia is not as bad as it has been projected to be and highlight the positive steps being taken, the Foreign Ministry jointly organized a three-week palm oil course last last year with the team from Collaborative Research Center 990 or CRC 990, which brings together three Indonesian universitities the University of Göttingen in Germany.
The course participants were researchers, business consultants, environmental activists, academicians and diplomat from Germany, Italy, Colombia, Malaysia, Singapore, Spain and Indonesia. They visited palm oil plantation sites in Jambi and lived for a few days with palm oil smallholder farmers, who account for 40% out of the country’s producers.
Markus Wolter, the program officer for agricultural commodities and animal husbandry at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Germany in Berlin, was one of the participants and said that the course provided an opportunity to look into different aspects of palm oil production and that it was “invaluable” to see and to feel how the smallholders work and live.
“It was really good to see how palm oil is improving the livelihoods of the smallholders,” Wolter said, adding that the experience had completed his understanding of the whole supply chain and how important palm oil is for the economy.
Indonesia is the top palm oil producer in the world with more than 35 million tonnes output, 25 million of which is exported around the world. The EU is Indonesia’s second largest export destination and the export volume to EU in 2016 was 4.4 million tonnes, an increase of 3% from 2015.
The industry provides job opportunities for about three million people and is the main source of income for many smallholders, therefore the government regards the industry and plantation as having significant roles in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in Indonesia, including poverty alleviation and narrowing the development gap.
Winandriyo Kun Anggianto, a civil servant at the Foreign Ministry who also took part in the program, said that participants – some of whom had never been in Asia let alone visited a palm oil plantation, learned that smallholders in Jambi could earn a net monthly income of around five million rupiah from planting palm oil trees in two hectares of land.
The amount is far higher than two million rupiah provincial minimum wage in Jambi.
“They could earn a lot more if they don’t hire daily workers to help them,” he said, adding that the participants were also able to see that child labor allegations were not always the case on the ground, where children occasionally helping their parents to work in the field is part of the local custom.
“The children are not formally employed but they lend their hands to their parents, which is normal in their existing social system. They don’t even always do that, just occasionally when they are on holiday and out of school hours,” Winandriyo said.
Participants agreed that while there had been some progress on Indonesia’s palm oil practices, there are still rooms for further improvements, such as stricter law enforcement.
Wolter concurred, saying that the government needed strong regulation and law enforcement to deter massive deforestation and to foster certification under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), considered as the world’s flagship certification in the industry that companies can voluntarily apply as their commitment to promote the use of sustainable palm oil.
Wolter also said that the smallholders and environment would benefit if growers adopted the University of Göttingen’s enrichment plots by planting six different tree species, including three fruit trees and three logging trees in between two palm oil trees to diversify the plantation and land cultivation.
“Palm oil is a product that is used all over the world, so what to do now is to do it as sustainable as possible without producing too much greenhouse gases, without deforestation and by avoiding land conflicts,” he said.
The EU Ambassador to Indonesia, Vincent Guerend told journalists in December that as an export market, the EU is very open to Indonesian palm oil as the duties are very low.
“There is a very high level of concerns in Europe among consumer about their own consumption patterns and the way they behave as citizens, so there is a very strong expectation in Europe to have a sustainable consumer goods and great respect for sustainable palm oil,” Guerend said.
The story first appeared in Bangkok Post