Measuring the value of climate-safe livelihoods against the mighty chocolate bar can be a hard line to swallow, writes Friends of the Earth's Derec Davies. http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/08/07/2648885.htm
Time and time again opponents of environmental sustainability paint a false dichotomy between securing healthy livelihoods for the world's poor and creating sustainable environments. A recent article by Tim Wilson from the Institute of Public Affairs, accusing "armchair environmentalists" of condemning many South-East Asian populations to a life of poverty, shows a lack of comprehension of what is at stake for both people and planet.
So who uses this palm oil which leads to mass deforestation? The answer, sadly, is you and I. The average citizen in Australia is unsuspectingly using or consuming about 10kg of palm oil a year. Mostly unlabelled, you'll find it in chocolate bars, our soaps and shampoos, margarines and snack biscuits.
The concern is not so much with palm oil itself, but with the many associated environmental and social problems caused by its production. Mr Wilson's article fails to consider the well-documented facts about palm oil plantations. It does not mention the myriad of chemicals used on plantations to which local farmers are exposed. Chemicals, such as Paraquat, which have been banned in many wealthy nations are still used in the industry. Nor does he recognise the alcohol, prostitution, land ownership conflicts and breakdown in social function which too often couple with plantation expansion and rapid changes to cultural norms through injection of additional investment dollars.
The Institute of Public Affairs alluded to the lack of evidence about illegal logging, forest fires and carbon emissions resulting from land clearing for oil palm development. Without looking far it is simple to find respected organisations such as the United Nations Environment Program, The World Bank to The Centre for International Forestry Research and Greenpeace all providing documented scientific and fact-based research to back up the claims.
Mr Wilson also neglects to mention that it is the poor populations he refers to who will be the worst affected by climate change that is partly driven by the associated deforestation and clearing associated with palm oil plantation. Climate impacts that include the spread of disease, changing weather patterns, rising sea levels and extreme climate events are all predicted to impact the world's poorest members the hardest.
Together, Australians and communities of the South-East Asia all stand accountable for the affects of climate change that threaten our well-being. The question needs to asked - Are we moving forward in the smartest and most equitable way to secure a liveable environment that is in balance with nature and economic wellbeing? The current answer is simply, no, but if we act now we can still change course towards a sustainable and equitable future for all.
As consumers in this globalised world we must be weary of attempts to shift the responsibility of unsustainable business practices on to our shoulders. It is large multinational corporations dictating and controlling our food production to both producer and consumer. These organisations pay little respect to the consequences of their actions and policies on the environment, climate change and affected peoples.
Cadbury may well have put itself out on a limb through its use of palm oil, with the likes of KFC and Woolies Home Brand products having made announcements to replace palm oil use in their products. Growing consumer pressure has focused attention on the reality of South-East Asian rainforests being destroyed for palm plantations, leading to displacement of Indigenous peoples, and adding to climate change through the loss of natural carbon sinks.
The growth in corporate responsibility in recent years has taken many guises. The expansion of rainforest destruction for cheaper South-East Asian plantation palm oils could be considered by some as heading in the wrong direction.
It is clear for some organisations, the positive developmental impacts of palm oil cultivation are obviously quantifiable into simple sums: you invest money into countries that have lower living standards and environmental standards than ours, you assist local communities to cut down their ancestral lands, you extract the raw material - in this case crude palm oil resource - to increase your profit margin by fractional per cent on each product (chocolate bar), and then you convince the world you are creating sustainable livelihoods.
The simple fact remains: consumers can vote with their wallets but ultimately responsibility lies with our corporations to do the right thing. Corporate social responsibility is more than just profit sharing and talking about sustainability. It is something from which we cannot hide from for long.
Derec Davies is Friends of the Earth's international liaison officer (Asia Pacific) and biofuels (inc oil palm) campaign coordinator.