Sra. Vela, friend and collaborator practicing traditional shifting agriculture techniques in her plot, where she also plants oil palm. (Image credit: Aoife Bennett)

Corporate-corporate boycotts could be an important driver of change on old oil palm frontiers and a protection mechanism for new ones

Aoife Bennett has completed her doctorate at Oxford’s School of Geography and Environment, with a specific interest in the impact that the oil palm smallholder industry is having on deforestation, social welfare and local economics in the Peruvian Amazon

This is Part 2 of 3 in our Palm oil series.

Whilst the ethics and activities of commodity supply chains remain opaque, and sustainability standards and certification processes are slow and often ineffective, the decision by businesses to boycott corporate commodities may be a critical driver of change.

The way agricultural commodities such as palm oil are produced is essential to evaluating their environmental, social and economic ethics and sustainability. However, production activities and their relative sustainability are generally poorly understood, especially in new oil palm frontiers emerging in Africa and Latin America and for most smallholding producers around the world.

In the consumer world, the symbol of the orangutan is to nature conservation and agricultural expansion what the polar bear is to climate change and energy. They are powerful images of the devastation our production and consumption activities are causing to the natural systems that sustain all life on the planet — including ourselves. Recently the low-cost supermarket chain Iceland used the image of the orangutan in an emotive commercial advertisement to promote their decision to remove palm oil from their products in a bid towards environmental corporate responsibility. The advert was blocked by advertising censorship but this occurrence mainstreamed the palm oil debate in the media once more. However, the ethics of commodity crop production and trade is tremendously context-specific, and these contexts and specificities are not well understood nor are they transparent to corporate consumers such as supermarkets, and their customers. In this sense, corporate boycotts of ethically opaque sectors may be an important driver of change.

A recent study undertaken at the University of Oxford on oil palm expansion in the Peruvian Amazon explains that it is the ways oil palm is produced and the political processes that spur them that need to be better understood and addressed, rather than the ongoing focus on the ‘type’ of producers (large or smallholders) and/or the crop (oil palm) associated with deforestation and ethical production. In this sense, the study flagged some oil palm production systems in the region as “profoundly anti-politics”.

When people think of oil palm production they usually envision vast monocultures encroaching onto old growth tropical forests. However, somewhere between 50%-60% of global palm oil is produced by families on small farms (smallholders). Currently, much of this smallholder production is domestic. However, the line between large corporate monocultures and the smallholder farmer is not clearly defined. Rather, there are a myriad of ways that palm oil is produced within these categories, each with their own social, environmental and economic implications for people, ecosystems and markets in the oils sector.

Credit: Shutterstock

For example, where there are roads and processing mills, smallholding farmers may get some government support, or indeed choose to independently grow oil palm as part of a heterogeneous farm/forest system on modestly sized farms. In the Peruvian Amazon where the study took place, this type of palm oil production was not found to cause significant deforestation, and smallholder families can benefit economically. These families would be unaffected by the boycott of internationally traded palm oil.

However, when the study turned to look at oil palm produced through a company-community partnership the socio-environmental implications took a very different turn. “Taken together, our quantitative and qualitative results cast agricultural intensification and global support for company-community partnerships as profoundly anti-politics. They are anti-political because they lack accountability to local people and forests and allow the governments to neglect local peoples’ needs.”

In addition to the deforestation of more than 10,000 hectares of old growth forest for the installation of one of the corporate plantations, the process also caused local socio-political unrest, injustice and even extreme violence. The study furthermore found that small farmers and indigenous communities that were ‘partnered’ with the plantation were instigating higher rates of deforestation than their neighbours that were not. Furthermore, new results from the long-term study show that smallholders in remote areas connected to corporate companies may also be incurring significantly larger debt burdens than their independent and government-supported counterparts that are producing oil palm in already deforested areas.

This type of situation raises a red flag on environmental, social and economic grounds and as such cannot confidently be considered sustainable agriculture on any level. Waiting for sustainability certification mechanisms to emerge and take hold in these regions would be to neglect the immediate need for action.

Whilst scientists endeavour to gather critical evidence about the state of play in new oil palm frontiers the production processes and the supply chain that feeds in and out of them still remain opaque, unclear and even dishonest. Furthermore, although sustainability standards and certification mechanisms are improving they remain globally inadequate. Dramatic demonstrations of corporate-buyer resistance to unethical corporate-producer and seller activities could be an important driver of positive change for the fate of forests and people in areas of agricultural intensification, and the rest of us around the world.

This is Part 2 of 3 in our Palm oil series, read the other parts here:

Part 1: Why we should be demanding ‘sustainable palm oil’, not ‘palm oil-free’
Part 2:
Corporate-corporate boycotts could be an important driver of change on old oil palm frontiers and a protection mechanism for new ones
Part 3:
Palm oil boycott could actually increase deforestation — sustainable products are the solution

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