WWF agenda punishing the poor

Alan Oxley is chairman of World Growth, a pro-development NGO that which has recently released a study assessing the impact of RSPO certification on producers of palm oil.

KUALA LUMPUR: THE Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) is one of the world’s wealthiest international environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Its total global spending is close to US$500 million a year.

But it has blind spot, a big one. Eradication of poverty is not a priority for WWF.  

In fact, the NGO’s strategies to protect the environment hinder efforts to combat poverty. This will be clear today when the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) meets here for an extraordinary session to insert WWF’s anti-development agenda into a revision of the RSPO standard. 

The revised standard includes onerous provisions for growers to report on greenhouse gas emissions. This is despite an acknowledgement by the RSPO that there is currently no practical or robust methodology for any such assessment. 

Growers and millers are being asked to comply with sustainability requirements that lack scientific rigour, and are costly and technically demanding.

Malaysian growers are perturbed. Smallholders in particular should be concerned. The revised standard includes several new criteria that will increase costs for growers, without assuring improved environmental outputs on the farm. 

The RSPO system is already too expensive and technically difficult for the majority of oil palm growers who manage small-scale plantations. There is little evidence that certification under RSPO adds value for growers who are required to meet expensive certification costs.

The system effectively prices palm oil producers out of the global oilseed and vegetable oil markets.

That appears to be WWF’s intention. Restricting the viability of Malaysian oil palm growers has a detrimental impact on the hundreds of thousands of households whose livelihood relies on palm oil production, as well as rural communities who have seen significant development as a result of increasing investment and infrastructure. This is the WWF blind spot. 

Instead, WWF focuses most of its resources on demonising palm oil through a global campaign. It contends that unless producers follow WWF’s rules for cultivating oil palm, forests and habitats for wildlife will be destroyed. 

There is no scientific justification for this claim. Forest land has been converted to oil palm plantations but the United Nations points out that worldwide, poverty is a primary driver of deforestation, as people clear land for housing, subsistence farming and fuel wood. 

Subsistence farming, gathering of fuel wood and unplanned urbanisation drive most global deforestation. Eradicating poverty is the solution to excessive deforestation, not limiting production of palm oil.

The campaign also jeopardises smallholders income, thus their ability to put food on the table for their families. Palm oil is a high-quality and low-cost vegetable oil, widely used in Malaysia, Indonesia, China, India and Africa. 

Development agencies, such as the World Bank, rate oil palm as one of the most effective crops for raising living standards and promoted the industry in Southeast Asia as a poverty-reducing crop. Smallholders prosper when producing oil palm.

The WWF system raises costs and decreases the viability of small producers. It is also not working for big business. 

In order to comply with RSPO requirements, large-scale growers must invest heavily in consultants, auditors and expensive management systems. Manufacturers, like Unilever, have to meet high cost of using more expensive WWF-approved palm oil and segregating supply chains. 

Yet, there is little commercial benefit or return on investment. There is no demand among consumers for RSPO-certified products as a recent poll in Britain concluded. 

Businesses went along with the RSPO model, thinking it would be profitable. It wasn’t. Only about 10 per cent to 15 per cent of palm oil produced worldwide is certified under the RSPO system, while only half of that is purchased.  

Consumers in developing markets are only interested in low-cost, affordable palm oil. And in wealthy Western markets, consumers won’t pay a premium for the more expensive certified oil. Yet, WWF presses on, oblivious to the failing market demand for certified product and dire economic consequences for Malaysian farmers. 

Clearly, WWF does not care. Its global policy is to prevent any conversion of forested land to other purposes, including farming, regardless of forests set aside for conservation. This further punishes the poor. 

World Growth advocates that agricultural production must increase in order to meet global demand for food.