Driving on palm oil: a dead end
Both ENDS and Forest Peoples Program have formally requested the European Parliament, Commission and Council and the EU Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmström, to consult indigenous and local communities impacted by EU trade in palm oil and other agricultural commodities in formal EU policy deliberations on these topics. Why did we decide to do so and what's it all about? Our colleague Michael Rice sheds some light on the matter.
Almost half the palm oil imported to the EU gets burned as biofuel
Almost half of the palm oil imported into the EU is used for biofuels. "This is an unfortunate consequence of the current Renewable Energy Directive (RED), as it requires EU members to aim to have 10% of their transport industry fueled by renewable sources like biofuels", says Michael. "Because palm oil is one of the cheapest vegetable oils available, it is appealing as biofuel. In order to encourage industries to change their behavior to meet the RED targets, EU members have created various incentives like subsidies for industry to shift to 'renewable energy' sources, including biofuels. Fuel wholesalers have both cost advantages and government incentives to buy palm oil to use as biofuel feedstock."
These extra incentives produced by the RED led to significant increases in the European energy sector's demand for and consumption of palm oil. Some researchers suggest that almost all of the increase in EU demand for palm oil since the introduction of the RED has been caused by the energy industry's use of palm oil as a biofuel, and not because of significant increases in palm oil consumption by other sectors.
At the same time, a growing body of research suggests that the climate impact of EU biofuel is on average 81% worse than conventional diesel when emissions from the deforestation required to build palm oil plantations are taken into account.
What is the biofuels debate really about?
The world is becoming increasingly aware of the problems caused by the large-scale production of palm oil. First of all, communities are displaced from their lands, families are evicted from their homes, and communal forests occupied and relied-upon by customary communities for generations are cleared. Rampant deforestation, often in precious bio-diverse rainforest areas, destroys flora and fauna and leads to soil erosion and degradation of groundwater systems. The heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers pollutes surface water and soil, often contaminating community farmlands and water sources. Last but not least, all this contributes to climate change.
In 2017, the debate about the use of palm oil for biofuels reached the European Parliament, and a resolution was passed calling for the Renewable Energy Directive to be amended so that from 2020 onwards biofuels made from palm oil and other vegetable crops would not be counted as 'renewable energy' for EU member's RED targets.
"The backlash from major palm oil producing countries and industry associations who sell to the EU market has been extreme", says Michael. "We have seen a concerted political, diplomatic and industry effort to oppose the phase-out of palm oil from the RED list of renewable energy sources, particularly through attempting to label the changes to the RED as a ban on palm oil in Europe. Unfortunately, many of the government ministers, ambassadors, CEOs, industry representatives and professional lobbyists from palm oil-producing countries have easy access to EU decision-makers, while community representatives from the same countries have no voice in the EU arena."
For example, on 15 February 2015, the ambassadors to the EU from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, Guatemala, Ecuador and Nigeria wrote to the Presidents of the EU Parliament, Commission, Council and representatives of various EU parliament trade, agriculture and energy committees in opposition to the proposed changes to the RED, claiming that the changes would undermine sustainable development and unfairly impact small-scale palm oil farmers. These claims are extremely questionable, but do have political influence.
The three governing institutions of the European Union – the European Parliament, European Commission and European Council, are currently deliberating the revisions to the RED and, in particular, the role of palm oil as a "renewable" energy source.
What's on the table and is it a ban?
The proposed changes to the RED do not contemplate anything like a ban on palm oil. There are no restrictions proposed on the import of palm oil into the EU, or even on the use of palm oil as a biofuel.
The proposal is to exclude palm oil as a 'renewable energy source' for the purpose of counting renewable energy consumption under the RED scheme from 2020 onwards. There are no restrictions whatsoever proposed on the import and use of palm oil in the food and cosmetic industries.
In practice, the proposed changes to the RED will mean that the government and market incentives for biofuel made from palm oil will probably decrease, and the EU energy sector will probably buy less palm oil. Given almost half of palm oil imported into the EU is currently consumed by the energy sector, the EU market for palm oil could shrink by up to half by 2020 if the RED changes are implemented.
It is for these commercial reasons that countries that produce and export large volumes of palm oil to the EU are opposed to the changes to the RED.
Impacted communities are essential participants for balanced and informed EU policy-making
Local and indigenous communities are very much impacted by the global trade in palm oil and other agricultural commodities like soy, beef, timber, pulp and paper, but are too often left out of EU trade policy-development processes. "We want to change this", says Michael, "as we believe it is very important to make EU policy processes inclusive and accessible for all stakeholders, especially for communities at the upstream end of EU supply chains who stand to suffer extreme hardship and rights violations if EU policy-making doesn't recognize them."
For these reasons, Both ENDS and Forest Peoples Programme issued a formal request to the Presidents of the European Parliament, Commission and Council on 17 April 2018 and to the EU Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmström on 27 April 2018, requesting that local and indigenous community representatives from palm oil-producing regions be given equal access and involvement in EU deliberations on trade and biofuels policies.
For more information
Read more about this subject
The production of palm oil is causing social and environmental problems worldwide. Both ENDS is working to make the sector fairer and more sustainable and is promoting alternatives for palm oil.
News / 28 June 2018
Last week, indigenous leaders from various countries were in Paris to urge action on deforestation and human rights abuses at the multi-stakeholder meeting of the Amsterdam Declarations Partnership. The group, invited by Forests Peoples Programme and Both ENDS, presented a publication 'Supply chain solutions for people and forests' containing a set of practical recommendations from local communities on how to make supply chains more sustainable and fair.
External link / 20 July 2021
Systemic change is urgently needed to protect the Earth's forests and the rights of forest peoples. Deforestation and forest degradation are driven by global demand for products like palm oil and soy. Tackling the problem requires not reduced demand and better policies and practices at international levels, but also improved recognition of community land rights – a key focus of our work with partners in 2020.
News / 10 February 2020
Civil society organisations from around the world condemn the statements by representatives of palm oil companies during a meeting with the Malaysian government. In this meeting, the company representatives called critical NGOs "toxic entities" and asked the Malaysian government to not let these NGOs into the country. Both ENDS' partners have published a reaction in which they defend their right "to expose the realities we face in their communities about the impacts of the palm oil sector".
News / 5 September 2016
By 2020, the EU wants a larger percentage of fuel used for transportation to consist of renewable sources, such as biofuel. Many European countries have therefore made the blending of biofuels in diesel and gasoline mandatory. A large proportion of this biofuel is now palm oil.
News / 23 November 2018
The production of palm oil is often accompanied by deforestation, environmental destruction and land grabbing. Local communities and activists who stand up against these problems are often threatened. Now the RSPO has taken significant steps in recent months to tackle these issues.
News / 24 October 2017
On 30 September 2017 Both ENDS submitted a position statement on the draft Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil National Action Plan. The draft National Action Plan purports to represent a blue print for improving the sustainability of the Indonesian palm oil industry. However, Both ENDS has significant concerns about the logic, rationale and purpose behind the draft National Action Plan and its legitimacy as a benchmark for a sustainable palm oil industry.
News / 8 December 2015
Both ENDS has, as a member of the RSPO, participated in a dialogue with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Netherlands is the largest importer of palm oil in Europe and wants to promote sustainable trade and production chains.
News / 30 June 2017
In 2005, a palm oil company approached the villagers of Kiungkang in West-Kalimantan, Indonesia, with offers to convert their farms to oil palm smallholdings. Many farmers agreed to the proposal because of the high monthly incomes promised by the company that they could earn from the oil palms. Unfortunately, the palm oil dream turned out to be an illusion.
News / 14 June 2019
Last Thursday June 13, Rahmawati Retno Winarni of TUK, an Indonesian partner organisation of Both ENDS, presented a symbolic tree and an appeal to the Dutch Minister of Agriculture Carola Schouten, also on behalf of 10 NGOs. The joint NGOs are pushing the EU, including the Dutch government, for strict EU legislation to prevent the destruction of forests and ecosystems and to protect human rights.
Press release / 14 December 2020
Brussels, Belgium - 14 December
A landmark 1,193,652 submissions to the EU's public consultation on deforestation were handed over to the European Commission this afternoon, all of which demanded a strong EU law to protect the world's forests and the rights of people who depend on them. The one million+ submissions have made this the largest public consultation on environmental issues in the history of the EU, and the second largest ever.
Video / 30 June 2017
Farmer in Kiungkang, West-Kalimantan, talks about the effects of the palm oil plantation around his village on food production and the health of the population.
Video / 18 November 2013
Between 2010 and 2013, Both ENDS, together with Indonesian and Dutch organisations and universities, conducted a project in the district of Sanggau in West-Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, Indonesia. The project was meant to help local communities with the recognition of their land rights and. This is a beautiful short documentary about how the people of one of these villages responded to the ever expanding palm oil plantations around them.
Blog / 29 January 2018By Michael Rice
Pak Japin is a quiet, slim, and softly-spoken man from the village of Silat Hulu, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. I met him at a recent documentary screening in Bali on the fringe of the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) annual conference, where he spoke about his community's nine year-long conflict with palm oil company Golden Agri Resources Ltd (GAR).
Participatory Land Use Planning (PLUP) is a rights-based approach ensuring inclusive and gender-responsive land governance, especially for those whose rights to land are not fully acknowledged.
Blog / 18 January 2019
Unambitious and uninspiring: the European Commission’s proposal for stepping-up action on global deforestationBy Michael Rice
After five years of equivocation the European Commission has proposed a ‘roadmap’ for stepping-up EU action to address its contribution to global deforestation. Despite the escalating impact of EU trade in forest-risk commodities, regardless of repeated calls from the European Parliament for regulatory measures and contrary to the conclusions of the Commission’s own feasibility study in support of legislative intervention, the Commission has ruled-out out any new initiatives, let alone any legislative measures. The Commission’s solution to this complex problem: policy coherence.
News / 28 February 2018
Human Rights defenders from all over the world visit EU to call for strong measures against deforestation
This week, from 12 until 16 February, fourteen indigenous leaders and human rights defenders from forest countries came to the Netherlands to call upon Dutch policy makers to take serious action against human rights abuses, land grabbing and further deforestation in relation to large scale agriculture, timber logging and mining. The Dutch harbours of Rotterdam and Amsterdam receive enormeous amounts of soy and palm oil, both for the Dutch market and for further transport into Europe and elswhere.
Together with civil society organisations from all over the world, the Fair Green and Global (FGG) Alliance aims for socially just, inclusive and environmentally sustainable societies in the Netherlands and the Global South.
Publication / 26 July 2018
News / 11 September 2020
The world's forests are under threat. Remaining forests – havens of precious biodiversity and the lungs of the planet – are being cleared to make way for beef, soy, sugar and palm oil production, mining and other industrial activities, fuelled by increasing demand from Europe and other countries. But the good news is: you can help stop the destruction!