Indonesia's setback on climate change
By John Aglionby in Bali
Published: November 18 2008 17:28 | Last updated: November 18 2008 17:28
Indonesia, the world's largest palm oil producer and emitter of greenhouse gases through deforestation, on Tuesday dealt a blow to hopes it would step up efforts to combat climate change.
Anton Apriyantono, the agriculture minister, told the annual conference of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil that sustainability criteria should not be made a priority, particularly for smallholders, "when economic needs are not being met" in the global financial crisis.
The announcement contradicts the views of many of the RSPO's 261 members who believe that, to remain relevant, the movement has to update its principles in the face of emissions caused by clearance of tropical forests for oil palm plantations.
Environmental groups, surprised by the frankness of the Jakarta government's admission, said it reinforced Indonesia's reputation for being committed to conservation only when there was a revenue stream to be developed.
Jakarta acknowledged its position as the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases only after it learnt it could make billions of dollars a year through carbon credits by not cutting down trees.
|A worker picks oil palm fruit in Indonesia, where the government is accused of putting the economic needs of the industry ahead of cutting greenhouse gases|
Indonesia's current deforestation rate is equivalent to clearing the area of several football pitches a minute.
It is unclear how much of this cleared land is being converted to oil palm plantations because the industry is not closely regulated and there is much illegal felling.
The industry is suffering from a massive collapse in prices, with benchmark futures on Tuesday on the Malaysian stock exchange down 68 per cent from last March's record high.
Indonesia now has 6.7m hectares under oil palm, generating 18m tonnes of oil. It wants to increase this to 8.1m hectares and 23.2m tonnes by 2010.
The RSPO is a voluntary organisation comprising producers, buyers, traders, banks, smallholders and non-governmental organisations. Its members account for half of the world's 41m tonnes of annual production and the first-ever shipment of sustainable palm oil reached Europe last week.
The amount of sustainable oil that will be produced in 2009 is estimated at 1.5m tonnes.
Jan Kees Vis, the RSPO president and director of sustainable agriculture at Unilever, the convenience goods company, said: "We should boost our credibility by making the emphasis on [mitigating] climate change more explicit." But Mr Anton said: "Not all problems can be solved at once and we should avoid making new requirements before the previous ones have been met."
Derom Bangun, an RSPO vice-president and chairman of the Indonesian palm oil producers' association, said: "We think it's good enough to stick to what we have and apply it with continuous reinforcement."
Brihannala Morgan, of the Rainforest Action Network, said the government had shown "environmental conservation, climate conservation, is taking a back seat to economic development. And right now, economic development looks like palm oil expansion."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008