Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

No such thing as 'sustainable' palm oil, says Indonesian youth activist

by Michael Taylor | @MickSTaylor | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 8 December 2020 13:27 GMT

Salsabila Khairunnisa speaks at a climate rally in front of Indonesia's ministry of energy and mineral resources in Jakarta, Indonesia on November 27, 2020. Credit: Dhemas Reviyanto

Image Caption and Rights Information

Widespread greenwashing and rule-bending by firms mean sustainability schemes are failing, says 17-year-old activist

By Michael Taylor

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sustainable palm oil does not exist because many growers lack transparency, fail to consult indigenous people, and are able to flout environmental rules set by ethical certification schemes, an Indonesian youth climate activist said on Tuesday.

Palm oil is the world's most widely used edible oil, found in everything from margarine to soap, but it has faced scrutiny from green activists and consumers, who have blamed its production for forest loss, fires and worker exploitation.

"There is no such thing as sustainable palm oil," said Salsabila Khairunnisa, 17, a high school student who co-founded Indonesian youth-led movement Jaga Rimba ("Save the Forest") in March last year.

"The thing to criticise is how these palm oil companies work. They can play their own tactics to avoid recognition of environmental violations," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Home to the world's third-largest tropical forests, Indonesia is also the biggest producer of palm oil, an industry heavily scrutinised by environmentalists.

In response to criticism, industry watchdog the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) introduced tougher rules in late 2018, including a ban on cutting down forests or converting peatlands for oil palm plantations.

Many big buyers of palm oil, besides purchasing certified-sustainable oil, have also invested in technologies to help monitor their oil's supply chains and stop deforestation.

Despite this, global brands this year struggled to meet a target set a decade ago to purchase only sustainably produced commodities, with "green certification" efforts not producing change across entire supply chains.

The debate on whether sustainable palm oil exists is hardly new. Two years ago, British supermarket chain Iceland said there was no such thing as sustainable palm oil available to retailers and removed it from its from its own-brand foods.

This year Australian confectionery giant Darrell Lea - which had used RSPO-certified palm oil - also ditched the tropical oil as an ingredient.

Palm growers that are certified as sustainable sometimes have subsidiaries that work outside the rules, Khairunnisa said.

She urged the companies to act more transparently and always consult and obtain consent from those living on or near land they wish to develop.

Those accused of breaking environmental rules should be dealt with quickly by certification bodies, she added.

The RSPO did not respond to requests for comment.

A police officer questions Salsabila Khairunnisa during a school strike for forests in front of Indonesia's ministry of environment and forestry in March 2020. Credit: Afriadi Hikmal


Khairunnisa, who lives in Jakarta, started to take an interest in environmental activism at the age of 13, when she began hiking near her ancestral home in West Java.

Searching social media later, she came across a group campaigning against forest destruction - due to excessive tourism and energy exploration - near where she went hiking.

Khairunnisa began debating and discussing deforestation at school, describing how forest losses in West Java contributed to the flooding she and her friends regularly experienced in Indonesia's capital.

Khairunnisa and her friends also found out about a campaign led by indigenous groups to protect Kinipan rainforest in Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island from palm oil expansion.

Keen to get involved, she helped establish youth-led movement Jaga Rimba to campaign against and study deforestation, and create a place where young people could discuss such issues.

Students involved with Jaga Rimba are between 14 to 22 years old and take part in weekly school strikes, online petitions, discussions and campaigns, and give conservation talks and workshops to students, Khairunnisa said.

Despite Indonesia already suffering the impacts of climate change - with cities and coastal areas threatened by flooding and rising sea levels - 18% of Indonesians believe there is no link between human activity and climate change, according to the 2019 YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project.

"It is really an important issue because we will be the ones most impacted," said Khairunnisa. "We need to act now. We need to demand that action from those people who are in power."

Khairunnisa, who is inspired by other climate activists such as Sweden's Greta Thunberg and Mitzi Jonelle Tan in the Philippines, said Jaga Rimba has advised student campaigns against deforestation on Sumatra island, in Kalimantan and Indonesia's easternmost region of Papua.

Recent campaigns have targeted Indonesia's plans to develop a giant farm on Borneo island to avoid food shortages, and a job creation bill passed by parliament in October that critics say could weaken environmental standards.

Khairunnisa is increasingly being recognised for her climate activism and last month was listed as one of the BBC's 100 inspiring and influential women for 2020.

For her, rainforests not only play an import role for biodiversity and tackling climate change, but also "connect us with our ancestors and identity", she said.

"In Indonesia, we see the rainforests as merely a passive object that we can exploit at any time, but it is the source of our lives," she said.

"It's not just a diverse land filled with trees and biodiverse species, it's also our life and future."

Related stories:

Australian chocolate maker's ban on green palm oil disappoints industry

Mars achieves 'deforestation-free' palm oil - what about the rest?

Singapore set to become world's first sustainable palm oil nation

(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.