Palm oil producers who use fire to clear land for plantations should be named and shamed, urged Professor Tommy Koh, ambassador-at-large for Singapore’s ministry of foreign affairs and keynote speaker at the RSPO meeting in Singapore this week.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a multi-stakeholder organisation set up to promote sustainable practices in the sector. It certified 14% of the world’s total palm oil production over the past year, some 7.7m tonnes.
However, palm oil production has come under scrutiny in recent years for destroying habitats, displacing indigenous people and reducing biodiversity in some of the most ecologically sensitive regions of Southeast Asia. Singapore often suffers from what locals refer to as ‘the haze’, when landowners burn peat lands to clear them for oil palm planting, which also releases large amounts of carbon locked up in soil.
Koh told RSPO delegates: “Since satellite photography now enables us to pinpoint the locations of the fires and the names of the plantations responsible for setting them, I would urge the NGOs in Singapore to join hands with those in Indonesia and Malaysia to name and shame these plantations.”
Koh was referring to satellite images available via Google Maps, which have been used by non-governmental organisations including WWF and an Indonesian alliance called Eyes on the Forest to track deforestation in the region.
He said that plantations engaging in illegal deforestation harm the whole industry.
“The image of palm oil is being tarnished by the bad behaviour of a minority and, as a result, palm oil suffers from a bad reputation,” he said.
Koh also highlighted the potential importance of responsible investment in palm oil trade, saying that financial institutions’ decisions to support sustainable plantation development could spur growth in certified sustainable oil.
“I have noticed with disappointment that none of Singapore’s banks is currently a member of RSPO,” he said. “I have also noticed that many multinational banks with offices in Singapore are members. This morning I would respectfully like to ask Singapore banks to join RSPO.”
The WWF, which helped instigate the RSPO, said in a statement on Thursday that even banks and financial institutions that were members of the roundtable had not made any time bound plans to clarify how they would help the transition to sustainability.
Koh added: “We should remind ourselves that 7.7m tonnes represent only 14% of global palm oil production. In other words, 86% of global production is uncertified. I hope that when we meet again in 10 years’ time, the whole or nearly whole of the global production would have come under RSPO’s certification….I am confident that it can be done.”
Palm oil is the most productive vegetable oil in terms of volume per hectare in the world, and the second most traded after soy. It is useful for food manufacturers, who appreciate its long shelf life, cost effectiveness and stability at high temperatures.