The group that was supposed to make palm oil sustainable just disappeared

deforestation in action

The skyrocketing global demand for palm oil is devastating forests in Southeast Asia, and now a group that was created to stop the destruction has been cut down, too — razed by political forces that opposed the push to end deforestation. But all is not as dark as it might look.

Palm oil is everywhere: it’s in most processed foods, not to mention shampoos, soaps, and cosmetics. The Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge, or IPOP, was created at the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit as a means to allow sustainable-minded business interests and responsible palm oil companies to work with and influence government leaders, in an effort to preserve forests and stamp out human rights abuses by bad operators. But IPOP and its member companies became punching bags for their political opponents, who want to keep clearing land (more on the factions here).

The organization itself has not confirmed its dissolution — at least as of June 30 — but corporate members have said it is shutting down. “Cargill supports the dissolution of IPOP,” an associate vice president of the giant U.S.-based agribusiness wrote in a letter to stakeholders, explaining that the Indonesian government had stepped in to fill the role IPOP was originally supposed to perform. The government has instituted a moratorium on new palm oil plantations, protected areas with big trees and high biodiversity, and established an agency to restore carbon-rich peatland.

But the government will need industry support to bring these policies to fruition. Responsible companies should look to the successful strategy used to reduce soy and cattle deforestation in the Amazon, which involved blocking rogue companies from access to the market, said Glenn Hurowitz, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. That strategy allowed agricultural production to double even as forest clearance was reduced to one third of what it had been.

The Amazon example shows that there’s plenty of room for Indonesia to grow its agriculture businesses without burning more trees. But to achieve that, responsible companies will have to engage in politics and fight for sustainability, Hurowitz said. Now business leaders will have to do that in some other form than IPOP.

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