Krabi, Thailand. An early downpour has turned the ground into mud, but Chirawan Phongrat is content as she walks among her palm oil trees in southern Thailand.
The 43-year-old smiles as she looks at the fronds that carpet the ground.
“It used to be different,” she says. “But we’ve learned that this ground covering retains moisture, prevents erosion and nourishes the soil. That’s essential for the palms.”
Phongrat’s family has been producing palm oil on their seven hectares for nearly 30 years, like most of their neighbors in Playpraya in Krabi province on the Gulf of Thailand.
“We always did things the way our parents and grandparents did,” she says. That meant liberal use of fertilizer and herbicides.
But then she spent two years on a course along with 500 of her neighbors, learning how to care for the palms, about nutrients, water management, environmental protection and safety at work.
Phongrat now uses very little fertilizer, while grass and weeds are cut back instead of being eliminated.
“The owls have returned, and they keep the rats away,” she says.
In July, Phongrat and her neighbors are to receive certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) as the first independent peasant farmers in the world to do so. German aid agencies set up and financed the training program.
“The certification is not perfect, but it is the best standard available,” project leader Daniel May says.
Palm oil is used in margarine, chocolate and hundreds of other foodstuffs, as well as in cosmetics and soaps, and as fuel. With demand on the rise, the area under palm oil cultivation in the world has increased tenfold since 1985 to 12 million hectares today.
This has also been driven by biofuel targets set by the European Union in 2007, with a 20-percent rise in Indonesia alone since then to 7.8 million hectares.
But conservationists say rainforests are frequently cleared for the purpose, and consumers have begun to demand palm oil cultivated under sustainable conditions.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) launched the certification in 2004 in combination with plantation owners, traders and processing companies to develop standards for sustainable production.
The aims are to reduce the use of pesticides, improve water management, manage waste disposal and the health and safety of workers. The RSPO certifies only palm oil for which no rainforest has been cleared since the introduction of the standards in 2005.
The farmers have also found their sustainable oil can fetch more.
“We have noticed that the fruit provided by the trained farmers is of higher quality, and so we pay more,” says Krittana Paperanon, who is responsible for purchases at the local mill run by the Univanich company.
“Demand for sustainable palm oil is rising,” says John Clendon, director of Univanich, which processes half of the country’s oil destined for export, mostly to Europe.
This year a total of 6 million tons of palm oil certified as sustainable will be sold on the world market, equivalent to 11 percent of the total.
“This has been a successful project, a piece in the puzzle in the quest for sustainable palm oil,” says Martina Fleckenstein, WWF’s director for EU policy on agriculture and biomass.
“We are pushing for direct trade links. Now there is a supply for companies that want to buy sustainable palm oil from peasant farmers,” she says.
Greenpeace is more sceptical of the Krabi project.
“It is good when palm oil is cultivated in a sustainable way, but a project like this one in Thailand does not resolve the real palm oil problem,” says Gesche Juergens, the group’s forests and biodiversity campaigner.
The bulk of the palm oil problem is in Malaysia and Indonesia, she says, where large plantations covering hundreds of thousands of hectares supply 80 percent of the global market, and where forest clearance is a more pressing problem.
Indonesia aims to triple its cultivation area over the next 15 years. German authorities estimate that two of every three new hectares will come from the clearance of rainforest. In Thailand, by contrast, the rainforest was cleared decades ago to make way for plantations, and this led to the choice of the site.
“We wanted to develop a pilot project in peace, well away from the big problems, like clearance of rainforest and destruction of habitat for the orangutan,” May says. The experience gained can now be transferred to other countries.
Deutsche Press Agency
Palm oil: facts and figures
The global surface area under palm-oil cultivation has risen tenfold since 1985.
The following are the major recent figures in the sector:
Palm oil is cultivated on around 12 million hectares worldwide, equivalent to just under the surface of around one-third the surface of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Indonesia has plans to expand its cultivation from 7.8 million to 20 million hectares in the next 15 years. Two–thirds of the new crops will be grown on cleared rainforest land, according to studies.
Indonesia is the world’s first producer of palm oil, with 25.4 million tons in 2011, followed by Malaysia with 18.7 million tons. The two countries account for 80 percent of global output, and are followed by Thailand with 1.5 million tons.
Annual worldwide production of palm oil was around 50.6 million tons last year, up by a record 4.7 million tons from 2010. This year’s output is estimated to increase by 1.8 million tons.
Certification programs for sustainable palm oil were first introduced in 2008. In 2012, 6 million tons, or 11 per cent of the global total was produced under certified schemes.
The global demand for pure sustainable oil is 3 million tons, or half of production, with customers paying a premium for certified produce. The rest is mixed in with other grades of palm oil.
Germany imports around 1.3 million tons of sustainable palm oil, around 40 per cent of which comes from farms accredited by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
Palm oil makes up one third of the world’s vegetable oil, with 71 per cent used in food production, 24 per cent in cosmetics, and the remainder going to energy production, including as biofuel.
Oil palms produce around 4 tons of oil per hectare per year, up to six times the yield of other plant oils.