Two scientists make their case for sustainable oil palm expansion

There is a complex paradox surrounding the humble oil palm. It is viewed as a “miracle plant” by the agro-food industry in the Northern hemisphere and farmers in tropical regions, yet denounced as an ecological threat by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) campaigning for the environment or the rights of indigenous people.

In Palms Of Controversies: Oil Palm And Development Challenges, authors Alain Rival and Patrice Levang examine this strange dichotomy. Using facts and field experience, they study common conceptions about the oil palm, examining both its strengths and weaknesses as they analyse its history and future.

“What is really happening?” the authors ask. “Is palm oil a driver of development, as the companies claim, or the harbinger of increasing poverty, as NGOs claim?

“The picture is more complex; oil palm is neither one thing nor the other, but both at the same time. The verdict differs depending on the site chosen, period involved and individuals asked. And even then the jury may still be unable to agree.”

Dr Alain Rival, a plant molecular physiologist, is the coordinator for oil palm research at Cirad, the French Centre for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development. Levang, an agronomist by training, is director of research at the French Research Institute for Development (IRD) and seconded scientist at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Rival and Levang’s research was carried out by CIFOR as part of the CGIAR Research Programme on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (CRP-FTA). This collaborative programme aims to enhance the management and use of forests, agroforestry and tree genetic resources across the landscape, from forests to farms.

Natural oil machine

Palm oil is now the most widely consumed vegetable oil on Earth, accounting for more than a third of the world’s production, according to a report on CIFOR.

“Average per capita global consumption of palm oil more than doubled from 11kg in 1976 to 24.7kg in 2009. Its popularity relies in part on its versatility — not just a frying oil, it is found in margarine, pastries, a very wide range of processed foods, cosmetics, soaps, lubricants, candles, pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, paints and even electronics,” says the report.

In Palms Of Controversies, newly translated into English and published online by CIFOR, the authors state that oil palm is able to supply this demand because it is a veritable “natural oil machine”.

“It occupies only 7% of the land devoted to oil-producing plants worldwide, but produces 39% of the global supply of vegetable oil. (Soy produces 27% of the world’s vegetable oil, but occupies 61% of the land used to produce oil.) Moreover, oil palm’s productivity of oil per hectare of crop outstrips any other oil-producing crop, and it requires far fewer applications of pesticides than other such crops.”

Power output: Oil palm’s yield of oil per hectare of crop outstrips any other oil-producing crop, and it requires far fewer applications of pesticides than other such crops, according to authors Alain Rival and Patrice Levang.
Power output: Oil palm’s yield of oil per hectare of crop outstrips any other oil-producing crop, and it requires far fewer applications of pesticides than other such crops, according to authors Alain Rival and Patrice Levang.

The authors note that most controversies regarding the oil palm do not derive from anything intrinsic in the crop, but stem from its methods of cultivation.

“The problem is not the oil palm, but the way people have chosen to exploit it,” they write.

Common concerns

A major strength of this book is that it offers much background information about oil palm, ranging from its biological components to its history of cultivation in the Southern hemisphere – from colonial plantations to the rise of Felda. Even neophytes can familiarise themselves with pertinent issues, thanks to Rival and Levang’s simple, accessible style.

The authors use this historical background as a platform to debate common concerns pertaining to palm oil. They argue, for example, that while there have been conflicts between palm oil developers and local populations, none of them have arisen out of rejection of oil palm as a crop. For example, in a study of 119 conflicts identified in West Kalimantan by NGOs between 1999 and 2009, a majority of them were due to land disputes or rejections of the companies.

Rival and Levang also address the issue of indigenous families who are persuaded to give up their lands or full plantations before they enter into full production, thus falling into resentment.

“Is oil palm to blame? Yes and no. Oil palm is only ever an opportunity for development offered to the local population as a whole, and something only a proportion of them would be able to take advantage of.

“The same would have applied to any other new cash crop or new opportunity. By way of example, the introduction of aquaculture in Sumatera and Kalimantan had a similar impact.”

The book goes on to examine myths that the cultivation of oil palm requires agro-industry, and by extension, the sacrifice of forest. The authors argue that this is not the case, and explore alternative methods of oil palm cultivation, such as agro-forestry techniques, patchwork developments, and ecological planning.

Commitment to the cause

Ultimately, Palms Of Controversies emphasises a move towards increased sustainable expansion for the palm oil sector, stating a need for strategies combining economic development with other concerns such as biodiversity, ecology, and the rights of indigenous people.

Local palm oil players, such as United Plantations Berhad, see the challenge of sustainability is ensuring it will be continually maintained.

“Sustainability is an easy word, but a very complex solution,” says United Plantations chief executive director Datuk Carl Bek-Nielsen. “It takes everyone’s time and resources. There’s no real finish line. We need to continually improve ourselves if we want to be sustainable. Unless something is sustainable, how can it be durable?

“The biggest challenge for sustainability is to ensure that both employees and management of the company are fully dedicated and committed to this cause. You need to do all you can to make sure these values trickle down and become part of the fabric of the company. If you lead by example, then these things eventually become the norm,” says Bek-Nielsen.

Other findings

In the chapter on The Oil Palm, A Good Or Bad Business For Local People?, Rival and Levang’s write that oil palm development has spread throughout the Indonesian archipelago at the request of the local people, and gave anecdotal evidence that it has caused a change of lifestyle there for the better.

The authors however admit in their introduction that they were limited by their respective skills in agro-economics and biology, which prevented them from analysing all the components of the palm oil controversy in detail.

They also express a professional slant towards the South, where all palm oil originates and where most palm oil is consumed.

Overall, Rival and Levang often back up their findings credibly. As such, Palms Of Controversies is a highly important read, a well-researched book that takes an insightful, practical examination of the issues surrounding oil palm development.

As the authors state: “It is no longer a question of halting the expansion of the oil palm, but of finding a smart way to manage it. All stakeholders should take immediate steps to shape this development and anticipate its impact in terms of biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions and effective development of local people.”

¦ Palms Of Controversies: Oil Palm And Development Challenges is available for free online at

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