The palm-oil industry’s effort to curb deforestation has lots of flaws

Mar 07, 2019

IN A WOODEN shed perched on top of a hill in Musi Banyuasin, a district on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, a group of palm-oil farmers wax lyrical about their crop. They started planting in the early 1990s after arriving from Java, the country’s most populous island, as part of a government resettlement scheme. Before palm oil, they worked in paddy fields and grew vegetables. But their new life is much more lucrative. Many have bought more farmland and can afford to send their children to university. “We can even buy cars,” exclaims one mustachioed farmer, gesturing at a 4x4 outside. The vehicle sits against a backdrop of oil palm seedlings and trees, which stretch for miles across the countryside.

In some ways oil palm is indeed a wondrous crop. It is highly efficient. On a per-hectare basis it produces between six and ten times more oil than equivalents, like soyabeans. And that oil is highly versatile, turning up in about half of all supermarket products, from pizza dough to lipstick.

That explains why Indonesia’s palm-oil industry has ballooned since these farmers arrived on Sumatra. Over that period the amount of land devoted to the crop has increased more than ten-fold, now covering 123,000 square kilometres, an area the size of Greece. Production surged 14-fold. Indonesia is now the biggest palm-oil producer in the...

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