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The Saga of Sustainable Palm – The Wilmar Chapter.

October 12, 2018

In 2013 Wilmar, the largest publicly listed palm oil company founded in 1991 promised the world ‘no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation. News out back in July looked like that promise may well have been broken as two executives quit the company after an investigation led by NGO Greenpeace questioned their supply chain.  Letters between the two were published on Wilmars website in late September, you can read those here. See, even though Wilmar has their own, sustainable palm farms and processes they don’t make enough to cover the needs of their customers and have to buy more.  The problems seem to stem from here if these investigations are proven to be true.

Looking into the Wilmar group, its board – executive and non – we see a network of companies not unusual for such a big venture.  The group of interests sitting around the Wilmar table include property developers, at least one premium hotel chain and more besides. While this isn’t directly relevant it does remind me that it can often be very difficult to really get to the bottom of who owns what, who influences what and what is going on in these massive beasts of companies and that includes their supply chains. Establishing ownership, actions and consequences is extremely tricky,  I don’t envy Greenpeace to be honest.

Coming back to palm we see an operation with its fingers in the palm oil pie across various locations including Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda and Indonesia further reminding us that while the bulk of palm oil does indeed come from Indonesia and Malaysia that’s not the whole story. It also reminds us that we need to remain mindful of what’s happening everywhere this crop grows especially in light of transparency issues.

The fact that Wilmar ticked the ‘tell them what they want to hear’ box back in 2013 and is now having to defend themselves in light of some evidence seemingly to the contrary it sure can feel like Palm will NEVER be a sustainable option but I’d urge caution before coming to that conclusion.  Companies will often get away with what they can, sometimes because they don’t care but often because they can only move so far and so fast.  A mega-tonne sized company with many arms, legs and roots is not going to be able to shift gears as quickly as a small mum-and-dad operation in one location. This isn’t me offering up an excuse by the way, this is just the reality of the beast. I remember the reality of this hitting me like a brick when I used to work for the Corporate company Orica.

Anyway, here’s the Wilmar website page as of today clearly showing their desire to be (or at least look) sustainable.

While there may or may not be any substance behind these allegations for Wilmar and while the fact that two execs left what appeared to be a rush looks related, it might not be, one thing is for sure,  the Palm Oil story is still captivating us. In fact, it is so interesting and so globally relevant that it’s been all over the news since July.  Here are some snippets:

While we, here in Australia might tend to focus on the animals put at risk when forests are ripped out and replaced by palm these articles show that there is more than one story out there.  Of course the plight of the Orang Utan is absolutely important but so are all these other things.  I’m particularly curious about how this is affecting local people, for good or bad. One consequence of expanding palm plantations is that Indigenous people all over palm growing regions are being moved by this issue and I mean physically moved here (relocated), not just emotionally moved.  When we take away the eyes and ears of the forest it dies.  I feel that we need to tell their stories.  We need to talk to the humans of the forests, to let them help us find a balance between our many competing priorities.

Here’s some more news snippets from the last few weeks.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the palm oil situation is complex, it is also pressing.  If we don’t find a way of managing palm farming sustainably we run the risk of losing what little rain forest the planet has left. We also run the risk of destroying Indigenous culture, habitat for countless species of flora and fauna, many of which I’m sure we haven’t even discovered yet. We also risk losing good top soil and our ability to prevent run-away climate change.  For all those reasons I am continuing to encourage people to think of the whole story of palm so that our brains can be inspired in many hundreds of ways to help make this industry sustainable.  I see the protest vote of going palm free (especially for cosmetics) as part of that story but only as part, not as the only way we can get on top of this issue.

I, for one, hope that Wilmar and all the other companies that are saying they are working towards better sustainability keep doing so and keep closing down whatever loop holes that exist. I also hope that the plant scientists do persist with their research and find other ways of making the land already cleared for palm more productive and easier to farm. I hope that the farms can provide safe and lucrative jobs for all that work on them and that Indigenous people of whatever land is being encroached on get their rights recognised and retain ownership over their land – their own Mabo moment.  Finally, I hope that we do all of this quickly so that we can protect the diversity and habitability of this planet.

Goodnight x


5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2018 8:39 pm

    Yes, it is a complex story.
    I am in the middle of it having our cosmetics factory in Peninsular Malaysia. My employees come from remote villages and their parents scratch out a living farming palm oil. This is sustainable, and on long established plantations, but each is just less than 10 ha. There are many like this, and a story not heard outside of Malaysia.
    I agree, many of these large corporations are ratbags and need to be held to account individually. But please do not destroy the industry…. a lot of sustainable palm oil people will be destroyed.
    Dr. Mike Thair
    Managing Director & Master Formulator
    Indochine Natural Sdn. Bhd.
    Penang Island,

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      October 13, 2018 8:45 pm

      I also agree. Palm free is a protest vote and has it’s place in some markets for niche products but turning our back on it entirely is definitely not a good idea. I’m working towards it being a better valued resource.

      • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
        October 13, 2018 8:46 pm

        Oh and I’d love to come over and see your factory. I’ve done some work and lecturing in Malaysia – great country.

      • October 13, 2018 8:52 pm

        Welcome any time. You may also be interested in our recycling cooking oil (palm of course) activity. I have trained and empowered a group of rural intellectually disabled to recycle used cooking oil into liquid household cleaning products. They collect the used oil from restaurants. We now buy some of the finished product, package and sell. They sell to others as well.
        Plus, they now offer training courses for others. A sign of project sustainability.

      • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
        October 13, 2018 8:53 pm

        That sounds great! I’ll definitely try and make that happen.

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