Dr Margi Prideaux – Palm oil or tuna…

Profile Margi Prideaux Live Encounters Magazine July 2017

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Palm oil or tuna: intent or results by Dr Margi Prideaux, International wildlife policy writer, negotiator and academic.

Palm oil giants have been burning tropical rainforest, opening up massive peat swamps and installing extensive networks of canals across Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests for decades. These activities are the largest sources of carbon pollution in the world today. The World Resources Institute estimated that the 2015 Indonesian fires produced more carbon pollution than the emissions from the whole of US economic activity over the same period– bumping Indonesia from the sixth-largest emitter in 2015, up to the fourth-largest in just six weeks.

Even when palm oil plantations are established without fire clearing, they still devastate vast areas of land to make way for one single crop–a crop that supports nothing but itself.

Palm oil is used in the manufacture of pre-packaged food, cosmetics, cleaning products, hair care, soaps and personal care items. It’s also used to produce biodiesel. Indonesia already provides 52 percent of the world’s palm oil supply. In 2014, almost 11 million hectares of oil palm plantations – owned by Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean companies – were exporting 33 million tons of palm oil, reaping revenues of US$18.4 billion. The figure is even higher now.

Orangutang_SergeyUryadnikov2_Shutterstock- dr margi prideaux
Orangutang_SergeyUryadnikov2_Shutterstock- dr margi prideaux

The conservation solution to this devastating growth has been to regulate through market choice. The poster childer for this option is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that exists ‘to transform markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm’.

As a market mechanism, I am confident the Roundtable has an impact. But, this market solution presumes that the consumption of vast quantities of palm oil is still a good thing, regardless of the biodiversity that is lost to its production. And, it turns a blind eye to the subjugation of communities, including their non-human members, who have lived for thousands of years where palm oil plantations wish to expand. The human cost of this battle is tragic, but there is another innocent caught in cross-fire – the gentle ‘person of the forest’–Sumatran orangutans who be extinct in the next few decades, and Bornean orangutans soon after that.

Another market mechanism is quickly building its prominence on our supermarket shelves. This is the coveted blue tick of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) that has been building up market certification mechanisms over many of the world’s tuna fisheries.

There has been some recent promotions surrounding one of the better tuna fisheries in the Western Central Pacific.  I’ve been watching this fishery for awhile, and have read the annual assessor reports as they’ve been published. Pacific Island countries are globally recognised as leaders in tuna management and conservation. But, this does not mean that distant water fleets are not overharvesting the fishery. Under the MSC conditions evidence that the harvest strategy is responsive to the stocks is not available. To meet the MSC standards, a fishery must be able to ‘demonstrate that it does not put at risk population levels of species caught incidentally (bycatch), yet a number of these certified fisheries still catch silky shark and oceanic whitetip sharks, dolphins, turtles and whale sharks. There is a strong focus on building the capacity of local enterprises to process the fish. On the surface this is great, and I commend it. What is not visible is if powerful multinational companies abide by the rules, or find ways around them, damaging the local efforts.

Intent or results?

My scepticism sounds like I am undermining something inherently good. That’s not my aim. I salute the conservationist seeking to push palm oil towards less damaging practice. I admire the Pacific Island countries for taking up the MSC challenge, and for standing in front, as the world-leaders they are.

My doubt is if the sustainability goals are being achieved or if they remain a dream. And this is the crux of my problem.

Consumers are being urged to buy MSC certified fish, and RSPO certified palm oil products, with the impression that the sustainability threshold has already been achieved. In most cases, the sustainability branding speaks of intent, not actual results. The consumer is being fed a half truth.

In the case of tuna caught in the Western Central Pacific, despite the pole and line method, there is still bycatch. Because so many other regions are fishing the same stock, no-one is sure if the removal of fish are sustainable. And, the Pacific Islands are still in the early stages of establishing their processing capacity. The intent is good, but they are not there yet.

For Roundtable certified palm oil, vast areas of land have still been cleared. A huge debt of biodiversity has been wiped out. Through the certification, companies have made a commitment to do better and risk the revoking of their certification if they don’t. But, the timeline involved is often long, and the potential for significant damage in the interim remains high.

Yet, too often the market is congratulated for this intent and not held to account for its action. The market can be a powerful tool, but market mechanisms are not perfect, and the simplified messages promoted to consumers are often misleading.

Is palm oil harvested under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil genuinely sustainable? No, it is not. It is still a mono-crop that has displaced many species and destroyed vast areas of habitat. Is it better that the free for all that existed before? Yes, it probably is. Although there are serious problems with some of the inherent assumptions in the certification process.

Is MSC certified tuna better than the other tuna fisheries? Yes, absolutely. And by a significant margin.  But, the management is still not perfect, and there is some distance the travel before it lives up to the blue-tick.

What people need to understand is that these market mechanisms speak to intent, not necessarily results. Many tuna species are still seriously overfished, and removing vast quantities of these important animals still has impacts on marine ecosystems. Orangutans and many hundreds of other species are still at the brink because their habitat is gone.

The wild world needs us to do better. The market is not the answer.


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Birdsong After the Storm by Dr Margi PrideauxMargi Prideaux is an international wildlife policy writer, negotiator and academic. She has worked within the conservation movement for 27 years. You can follow her on facebook or twitter @WildPolitics. Her books, including Global Environmental Governance, Civil Society and Wildlife and Birdsong After the Storm, can be seen at http://www.wildpolitics.co/books

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