Palm oil projects in the Thai Kingdom are winning over the hearts of conscientious consumers in Europe. What can other countries learn from the Thai experience?
By Christiane Oelrich
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 is essential for the palms.”
Phongrat’s family has been producing palm oil on their seven hectares for nearly 30 years, like most of their neighbours 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 fertiliser and herbicides.
But then she spent two years on a course, along with 500 of her neighbours, learning how to care for the palms and about nutrients, water management, environmental protection and safety at work.
Phongrat now uses very little fertiliser, 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 neighbours became the first independent peasant farmers in the world to receive certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). German aid agencies set up and financed the training programme.
“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 global area under palm oil cultivation has increased tenfold since 1985 to 12 million hectares. Biofuel targets set by the European Union in 2007 have driven this sharp rise.
Since then, the number of plantations in Indonesia have increased by 20% 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 RSPO 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 and to manage waste disposal and the health and safety of workers. The RSPO certifies only palm oil for which no rainforest has been cleared.
The farmers have also found their sustainable oil can fetch more.
“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 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 Thailand will sell a total of six million tonnes of palm oil certified as sustainable on the world market, equivalent to 11% 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% 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 and 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,” May says, “well away from the big problems, like clearance of rainforest and destruction of habitat for the orangutan.”