The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is advocating a collaboration between the international conservation community and palm oil developers in order to create sustainable strategies that will save fragile ecosystems and the species that inhabit them, particularly apes.
The recommendation follows the release of a new report, Palm Oil Paradox: Sustainable Solutions to Save the Great Apes, the result of a two-year study of palm oil development in Southeast Asia. It includes steps required to ensure that the loss of biodiversity that occurred in that region is not repeated as the crop expands into Africa.
The report was produced by UN Environment through the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), an alliance of 105 governments, conservation organizations, research institutions, UN agencies, and private companies committed to ensuring the long-term survival of great apes and their habitat. The report was released at the 14th Roundtable on the Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) meeting in Bangkok.
"This report recognizes that palm oil is here to stay and the hard line boycotts are unlikely to achieve success," said GRASP coordinator Doug Cress.
"Right now, all of the chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans in the world are classified as endangered or critically endangered, so we need to find a way to work constructively with a commodity that can either hasten extinction or offer a way forward. Palm Oil Paradox makes it clear that finding common ground with palm oil developers makes sense," he added.
Burning rainforests on Borneo and Sumatra to make space for palm oil plantations is one of the greatest threats to orangutans. Photo: UNEP GRID Arendal/Peter Prokosch
Palm oil is a $62 billion industry and an ingredient found in roughly half of all items on supermarket shelves. In 2014, UN Environment signed a memorandum of Understanding with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in order to encourage consumer demand to move towards sustainably sourced palm oil.
Palm Oil Paradox advocates a multi-stakeholder approach that includes environmental experts from the start as well as strictly enforced "no-kill" policies and environmental teams to monitor, manage and protect great apes and high conservation value (HCV) forests.
Dr. Marc Ancrenaz, lead editor of the report who has worked in great ape conservation for more than three decades in Africa and Asia, said: "There are so many lessons to be learned from the cultivation of palm oil in Southeast Asia; not just mistakes, but successes too, and we believe that it is crucial that those lessons be carried over into Africa."
"We also felt it was important to address many of the misperceptions regarding the palm oil industry and suggest a new dialogue that finds ways to collaborate with an industry that will only grow bigger in the years to come," he added.
"The conservation of orangutans and biodiversity is our first priority, but it's clear we need a fresh perspective if we're going to achieve our goals in the years ahead," he said.
Investing in forests is win-win for communities, climate and orangutan conservation. Photo: UNEP
Another editor, Dr. Erik Meijaard, cited the impact of unsustainable palm oil development in Indonesia, where he is based.
"It's time we recognized that the land-use choices we make as human beings can have devastating results not just for ourselves, but for biodiversity," he urged. "The climatic conditions that now occur regularly in Southeast Asia - floods, the fires, the temperature rises - are no accident."
Dr. Meijaard explained that these conditions are rather the result of poor land use decisions and ignoring the costs of deforestation. He expressed a hope that the report would be seen as a resource for better planning in the future.
"Africa may seem vast and limitless as a future site for palm oil, but Borneo and Sumatra once did, too. Better management in palm oil is possible. The evidence is there that great apes can be managed in oil palm plantations. But the good examples are vastly outnumbered by the bad ones, and that needs to change," he said.
Although sustainable palm oil accounts for some 20 per cent of global production, only half is sold. UNEP advocates expanding the current market for sustainable palm oil in order to drive conservation efforts that would support the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.