News / 14 July 2016

Green and fair palm oil: truth or a fairy tale?

Palm oil production is widely associated with land grabs, human rights violations, large scale monoculture and severe environmental damage. Positive examples in the palm oil sector are rarely highlighted, but fortunately they do exist. Companies like Musim Mas and Bumitama in Indonesia are leading a much needed shift to a more environmentally and socially responsible way of palm oil production. Recently, Ms. Lim Sian Choo, Head of Corporate Secretarial Services and of Corporate Social Responsibility of Bumitama was in the Netherlands for an informal meeting organised by AidEnvironment and Both ENDS. Representatives from the private sector, NGOs and government were also present to discuss concrete steps taken by Bumitama to achieve sustainability in real time.  

Bumitama, alongside a number of other plantation companies committed to ‘zero deforestation, zero peat and zero exploitation of any new land designated for palm oil production’. For Bumitama 2013 marked a turning point for palm production when companies such as Unilever adopted policies to fight deforestation and, abandon palm oil grown on peat from the supply chain. But this policy has yet to be adopted by producers and larger palm oil companies. Even within the ‘Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), of which it is a member, Bumitama became -and still is- a front runner. 

‘Natural Corridor’

An important part of the sustainability efforts by Bumitama is to reach out to local communities and explore new avenues to restore and protect forest land and to create alternative on-farm and off-farm income generating opportunities. Furthermore, Bumitama is endeavoring to connect fragmented parcels of forest to create corridors. The idea behind such a natural corridor is to connect two larger, but still fragmented, remaining forest areas in order to allow biodiversity to move more freely from one area to the other.


According to Ms Sian these conservation efforts have helped improve environmental conditions and enhance community access to land and involvement in forest conservation. These efforts require close collaboration with the local government which has proven to be an important ally in facilitating sustainable palm oil production. Thus, Bumitama is working with the government and local communities towards reducing further loss of valuable forest areas and creating viable measures to protect these areas in the long term.


Improving community livelihoods

To combat deforestation, e.g. as a result of illegal logging, Bumitama engages in activities with communities to improve the livelihood of villagers. “If, for example, an illegal logger is identified, we offer him the financial means and coaching to start other activities to generate income, for example by becoming a poultry farmer”, says Ms. Sian. “These efforts have proven to be successful, but the struggle to guarantee sustainable palm production has only just started.


An important government change is still necessary in negotiations concerning land use and land rights. Communities still face displacement or other environmental consequences because they are not legally registered as owners of the land. Inconsistencies between local maps and state maps still cause tensions and conflicts of ownership. We will continue to search for solutions for these problems.”


The way forward

Thousands of hectares of forest which are already ‘enclaved’ by plantation concessions can or will not be cleared for palm oil cultivation. A major challenge is that the permitting authority (district government) may insist that the company holding the license uses these areas for development purposes. Or else, the authority will annul the license and give it to another company which is not hesitant to convert this forest.


Paul Wolvekamp of Both ENDS: "Companies such as Bumitama and Musim Mas seek ways to use the area for development purposes, and at the same time enhance forest conservation. Bumitama has gone further down this road and assists local communities to manage forest for economic and subsistence purposes by sustainable extraction, value addition and marketing of non-timber forest products. Other options are for example the development of eco-tourism."


"Palm oil alone will never be able to provide enough income and employment for the rapidly growing rural population", Paul emphasises. "Strengthening and reintroduction of more diverse agro-forestry systems and community forest management alongside palm oil production, rubber and other dominant cash crops is the only way forward .In that respect, these new forms of company-community engagement are very encouraging. Also within RSPO we need to enhance and share these experiences and further develop a ‘community of learning'."






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