Racial Inequalities in EU Approach to Palm Oil?

  • The EU may have inadvertently exposed an ugly side to its hostile approach to palm oil.
  • Insiders from the EU-ASEAN Joint Working Group (JWG) have expressed frustration with the EU’s continued stalling of the talks.
  • The JWG which was initiated to overcome the issue of market access to the EU’s biofuels program was expanded to all vegetable oils at the insistence of palm oil producing countries Indonesia and Malaysia.
  • Is the EU uncomfortable with the ambition of the expanded JWG which implicates the use of competing vegetable oils from non-ASEAN countries?

In the opinions of stakeholders in ASEAN palm oil producing countries, this appears to be the case. The EU was more than willing to sit and discuss “the problems with palm oil” but once palm oil producing countries insisted that the JWG cover environmental problems with all vegetable oils, the EU has disappeared.

This would sound like a conspiracy theory were it not for the fact that soy from occupied South American countries and rapeseed from occupied North America and Australia continue to find favour in the EU’s renewable energy programme.

Clear Racial Discrimination

The CPOPC has written in its blogs that these countries which supply the EU with biofuels have a worse record for environmental protection as well as harsh histories in their treatment of indigenous peoples. The blogs argued that the palm oil industries have been a key contributor to their sustainable development which includes the eradication of poverty in Southeast Asia.

The palm oil industries in Indonesia and Malaysia have indeed played key roles in bringing development to rural communities in their countries. These have allowed these remote communities an opportunity to enjoy necessities like education and health care.

The achievements as enabled by palm oil must be acknowledged on the same level as rapeseed producing countries which have an abundance of coal and tar sands oils to otherwise finance their development.

Palm oil producing countries have further acknowledged that the buyer is always right and have made considerable sacrifices in lost economic opportunities to prove that their palm oil is a sustainable source of food and energy for the EU and beyond.

The records speak for themselves. Indonesia as the top producer of palm oil globally can still boast of an expansive coverage of primary forests, ideal lands for oil palm cultivation but these have been protected due to their high carbon stock. Malaysia as the second largest producer of palm oil globally has numerous programs in place to protect its biodiversity. These facts place palm oil producing countries way above countries that produce other vegetable oils making it impossible for countries like Australia or Canada to match.

Can the EU expect Environmental Justice Without Racial Justice?

The palm oil industry had described the EU position on palm oil as “crop apartheid.” The Union’s long standing hostility towards palm oil had been questioned by influential groups like World Economic Forum and the IUCN. The latter published a new report recently that stated “Sustainable production and consumption netter than exclusion for sustainable fats and oils sector.”

Considering what these experts on development and biodiversity are saying, can the EU reasonably expect that denying palm oil of premiums paid to renewable biofuels will save forests? It will not.

Greenpeace knows that.

The environmental group has been the thorniest of thorns in the side of palm oil. Famous for its media stunts with activists rappelling down restricted areas while unfurling massive banners, the activist group has similarly targeted other commodities.

Where its messaging resonates with palm oil producing countries is in its fight for Environmental Justice.

“Environmental Justice is a concept that was coined in the early 1960s during the Civil Rights movement… At its core, Environmental Justice guarantees that all people have equal access to a healthy, safe, and sustainable environment, as well as equal protection from environmental harm.”

This is in fact, the visions of Indonesia and Malaysia as they roll out national certification programs for palm oil under the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil certifications.

Meanwhile, the EU continues to show its colonial traits in its complaint against Indonesia over nickel. Indonesia wants to develop its downstream industries for better jobs in Indonesia but its export restrictions threaten jobs in the EU.

This cannot be acceptable. Lesser developed nations cannot be seen as mere sources of fodder for the EU to continue living comfortably. Neither should commodities from occupied territories enjoy a privileged approval as a renewable commodity.

Palm oil producing countries are fighting tooth and nail against the discrimination displayed by the EU. They should. This crop has lifted millions of people out of poverty in Southeast Asia including farmers and workers whose toil has turned palm oil into a viable source of food and fuel to feed global needs. Somewhere in there is a living example of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals but since the EU has chosen to ignore that, one can only hope that the Union has real world solutions for its Fit for 55 ambitions.

Photo credit: Dayak Oil Palm Planters Association

In the meantime, if the EU is earnest about saving tropical forests in Indonesia and Malaysia, it must drop its not-so-clever pretense of saving the world in its anti-palm oil stance and come clean. Its attitude towards palm oil is a bit too brownish at the moment.

How else can anyone explain why soy has not been similarly targeted when its environmental impact in South America is nearly three times that of palm oil?