Monday 15 Jul 2024
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Palm oil has a key role to play in the sustainable development of tropical countries.

Multiple countries, especially African nations, are ramping up domestic palm oil industries in a drive to become self sufficient

While self sufficiency, or the ability to feed oneself should be seen as a major building block in sustainable development, the development of the palm oil industries in African countries has met with misguided condemnation by environmental groups in the West.

Quoting the "destruction of forests for palm oil", this narrative from wealthy environmental groups in the Rich North, has been expanded to include popular commodities including cocoa and coffee, both of which are essential exports for generating foreign exchange for developing countries.

This focus on forests, as a defining factor in the sustainable development of countries in the Rich North, has brought about a clash in the definitions of sustainable development as seen by developed countries versus developing countries.

The strongest contrast in Sustainable Development Goals is in the green ambitions of the European Union. The Union's intent to reduce the deforestation footprint of the EU citizen is being rolled out in its Corporate Sustainability and Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) which dictates that imported goods must not have caused deforestation in producer countries. This can be seen as discriminatory legislation to keep developing nations, whose only capital is natural forests and their conversion to agricultural lands, poor.

The CSDDD has met with protests and concerns not only from developing countries in the tropics as Canada, a major stakeholder in the global timber industry, has voiced its concerns as well. If Canada, as a member of the elite global community in the G7 countries has concerns about the Due Diligence Directive, what hope is there for developing countries to align their SDGs with those of G7 countries and the European Union?

This looks like an impossible goal if you consider the stark differences in SDGs. For example, the EU is pushing green energy sources to maintain the comfort levels of their citizens in conditioned air in buildings. For developing countries, the primary goal is not air conditioning but hunger. The base ability for its people to be fed.

With such a wide gap between the SDGs of developed countries versus those of developing countries, is it possible for the both to meet?

It is possible. Finding a middle ground where developed countries and developing countries can agree on a mutually acceptable goal for sustainable development will require both sides to acknowledge the needs of the other.

On the part of developing countries, the EU's ambition to reduce its citizens hefty impact on forests in developing countries must be acknowledged. On the part of developed countries like the member states of the EU, there must be acknowledgement that some deforestation is unavoidable in the development of poorer nations.

One need only look at the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals to see how essential this mutual agreement is, in order to achieve a sustainable future for all.

On one extreme of the 17 goals as set out by the United Nations, the goals start with No Poverty and Zero Hunger, which are the common goals of developing countries. On the other extreme of the 17 goals is Partnerships for the goals, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, which are the goals for both developed and developing countries.

In between the two extremes, are the goals for gender equality, clean, affordable energy, industry and infrastructure, responsible consumption and production, life below water and on land and climate action.

Establishing a credible meeting point for a sustainable commodity, one that meets the needs of developing countries and the environmental demands of developed countries, will require governmental support from both producer and buyer countries.

As the EU's Due Diligence legislation steams ahead despite the protests of some countries, it will become essential for countries that export commodities like palm oil, soy, cocoa to the EU, to prove that they meet the overall demands of the EU.

The sustainability of Malaysian palm oil, as certified under the mandatory standards of the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification scheme, is a precedent setting example of how the SDGs of developing countries can be aligned with those of developed countries.

As the first of its kind, the MSPO will no doubt be poked and examined for credibility especially by environmental groups from the Rich North. These groups only need to cast an unbiased eye on the principles and criteria governing the MSPO, to recognise that this Malaysian standard, meets all their demands for the sustainable production of commodities like palm oil. Principle 5 is an industry leading governmental commitment to the environment. While there are certification schemes with similar standards on paper, the MSPO stands out as a mandatory scheme that has audited and certified close to 100% of Malaysian palm oil.

The immediate task ahead for the Malaysian government and industry, is to present its achievements to concerned markets in the EU and the US, which has a legislative proposal similar to the EU's to prevent imported deforestation.

As the first of its kind globally, palm oil certified under MSPO, should get a green pass for imports by the EU and US as the standards are not mere pledges and commitments but actions taken on the ground. As a pioneering sustainability standard, the MSPO proves that the UN's SDGs can be aligned across nations with very different backgrounds.

Written by Robert Hii from CSPO Watch

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