Closer EU Ties Needed To Save “Our Forests”

When it comes to saving “our forests”, the rich North with its climate experts seems to be telling the global South to do what they say, not what they do. This attitude has been a source of much discontent, mainly from palm oil producing countries of Indonesia and Malaysia who see it as neo-colonialism.

Orangutan in a sanctuary place in the forest of Salat Island, Central Kalimantan. (Source: BOS Foundation)

Climate experts far removed from tropical forests are guilty of this as they excited the importance of tropical forests in the global fight against climate change. What is more infuriating is the proclamations of netizens who have never seen these Southeast Asian forests and yet lay claim to these forests as “ours.”

Let’s get one thing straight.

These forests in Indonesia and Malaysia are not “ours.” They belong to these countries with clear borders acknowledged by the United Nations. Suppose fighting climate change was as simple as laying claim to our neighbor’s yard to dump our wastes while keeping our garden clean, palm oil producing countries then should lay claim to the temperate forests and peatlands in the rich North which hold so much capacity for carbon sequestration.

The problem with climate change is not the loss of tropical forests but the carbon emissions from countries in the affluent North whose development was and continues to be powered by fossil fuels. All the palm oil plantations in the world could be returned to nature as espoused by a handful of experts in the EU, but this would not be enough to clean up the EU’s emissions.

Win-win Forest Management Pathways for Climate and Biodiversity

It is heartening to see that the European Union is finally cognitive of the ecological impacts of its citizens and has formulated a sustainable future for the EU through the European Green Deal. The two most important ambitions of the Green Deal will be the decarbonization of its economy and working with international partners to improve global environmental standards if the EU is to bring its influence to save “our forests” in palm oil producing countries.

Decarbonization of the EU economy and post-Brexit UK will be no easy task as the go-to source for renewable energy in biomass comes under criticism. The EU Commission in response to criticism admitted that:
“Bioenergy sits at the nexus of two of the leading environmental crises of the 21st century: biodiversity and climate emergencies.

Forest bioenergy has the potential to provide part of the solution to both crises, but only when biomass is produced sustainably and used efficiently. Woody biomass for energy production in the EU shows the need to recognize that sustainability of bioenergy remains a complex issue with no one-size-fits-all answers, but that win-win and lose-lose forest management pathways for climate and biodiversity exist.”

The acknowledgment of the environmental problems associated with EU sources of biomass is a good step forward towards removing its traditional hostility against palm oil as a renewable energy source. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution which dictates that all possible solutions must be used to truly reduce the EU’s impact on natural resources.

An EU Green Deal that includes palm oil from members of ASEAN countries can be one of the best moves towards the sustainability of the EU’s energy supplies.

An EU-ASEAN Green Deal to Fight Climate Change

As the major driver for sustainability in the global palm oil industry, the influence of the EU in producing countries Indonesia, Malaysia and Colombia is without equal. The Union’s open hostility towards palm oil in recent years has reduced some of that influence as palm oil producing countries sought out other markets.

At risk are notable commitments by the world’s biggest palm oil producers all of which have been brought to bear by the EU’s influence.

Indonesia has issued a moratorium on palm oil plantations which includes an option to claw back areas of importance for conservation. Since its implementation in 2018, the Indonesian government through its Ministry of Environment and Forests have actually clawed back not only licensed areas for palm oil but timber as well. In addition to the moratorium, Indonesia is keeping up its commitments to REDD+ to restore two of the country’s largest carbon stock sources.

Colombia, a major exporter of palm oil to the EU, became the first palm oil producing country to pledge to a no-deforestation commitment in 2018.

The Malaysian government has pledged to cap any expansion of its palm oil plantations at 6.5 million hectares. The existing plantation area sits at 5.85 million hectares. An early pledge to cap at it at 6 million hectares was resisted by Dayak farmers in Sarawak who wanted the option to join the industry. Even so, the state government has stated that it will not issue any new licenses for industrial plantations to show the EU that the state is serious about conservation.

Yet the EU’s impact hangs in the air as palm oil producing countries wait to see if the decisions against palm oil made at REDD ll will stand or if the EU will slap unreasonable requirements on its palm oil imports.

The win-win pathway for the EU and indeed, the global fight against climate change is very obvious. The EU has been instrumental in bringing about change in the global palm oil industry. Even as world economies struggle to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is absolutely essential that the EU Green Deal must involve ASEAN economies to build back greener on a global scale so that we may save “our” forests together.