Solving the conundrum of achieving UN SDGs: the delicate balancing act of promoting human development while protecting forests

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a lofty set of goals which attempt to enunciate a vision of humanity progressing sustainably in harmony with its environment. But in our short history of industrialisation and rapid population growth we have yet to come up with a formula that delivers human socio-economic development with zero or minimal impact on the environment and the other living things on this planet.

As someone who works in the palm oil industry so often portrayed as an eco-villain, I am keenly aware of the tensions inherent in balancing these goals.

Palm oil: an SDG commodity

To Indonesia and Malaysia, the main producers of palm oil, this agri-commodity has been nothing short of a godsend. In a space of a few decades thanks to the boom in commodity prices, millions living in rural areas have been lifted out of absolute poverty. It’s estimated that a palm oil small farmer can earn up to seven times more than a farmer planting subsistence crops. Palm oil operations are a potent job generator – as the second-largest palm oil plantation company, we help create over 170,000 jobs across Indonesia, most of which are in rural areas. Industry-wide, it’s estimated that the sector creates up to 16 million jobs in Indonesia both directly and indirectly.

A palm oil estate comes with a host of satellite amenities – villages which previously had no or extremely difficult access to clinics and schools suddenly find them being made available by the companies that open plantations near them. Overall infrastructure is automatically improved since the companies need to transport the palm fruit efficiently and quickly from estate to the mill.

Palm oil delivers at least five SDG goals including Ending Poverty, Good Health and Wellbeing, Quality Education, Decent Work and Economic Growth as well as Reducing Inequalities, and these are just the most salient. If any commodity could be called an SDG commodity, palm oil would certainly qualify due to its proven track record in helping to advance the human condition.

Palm oil delivers SDGs
Palm oil delivers SDGs

Innovation at the forest frontier

What of the SDGs of protecting life on land and action on climate change which involve forest conservation?

This improvement in the lot of rural farming communities has come at a cost to the environment. Humans have been changing the natural environment for thousands of years, shaping it and moulding it to suit their purposes. In our modern age, we can transform our landscape at even greater speed and scale. In this, the palm oil industry is not unusual; there is hardly an economic sector in our rapacious, industrial age which isn’t driven by the underlying impulse to plant more, build more, make more, consume more. This is the driving ethos of our modern capitalist, consumerist economy.

What is unusual and noteworthy is that leading palm oil producers have started seriously examining and considering their actions and are genuinely trying to become more responsible in quite innovative ways.

One of these innovations being pioneered by my company is community conservation partnerships. It’s the sort of “place-based production-protection partnerships” that the World Economic Forum has called for as we search for new models of rural development that go in tandem with forest protection. And it’s how we are trying to realistically protect an area roughly the size of Singapore, identified in our concessions as conservation areas.

We start by engaging the local communities in Participatory Mapping as many of these rural settlements have no official maps. Together, we map key areas including customary boundaries and land needed for food security. These maps are finally lodged officially with the local authorities, enabling the villages to access government development funds for the first time. It also helps address perennial problems such as land tenure opacity.

Mapping crucial areas with the community
Mapping crucial areas with the community

Using the mapping process as a launchpad, we continue intensive consultations with the community, this time to convince them to set aside areas which have been identified as sensitive eco-systems such as peat or High Carbon Stock Forests for conservation.

Through long experience, we know that while we as a company may designate areas on the map for conservation, this is meaningless without a similar commitment from the local communities that they too will forgo those areas for future livelihoods or food security use. This is especially true when the areas are within our concessions, but not within our legal control, for example, when they’ve been designated by local government as community estate development area (or plasma).

Community conservation partnerships are a viable way to protect eco-systems
Community conservation partnerships are a viable way to protect eco-systems

Despite this, we have made encouraging initial progress. To date, 10 villages in West Kalimantan have agreed to set aside over 7,000 hectares as protected forests. Some lateral thinking has helped us achieve these outcomes. This involves coming up with Alternative Livelihood programmes for the community. We’ve started programmes such as helping the community use spare communal land for organic farming, using low-tech sustainable methods which also incidentally precludes the use of fire as a land-clearing mechanism.

This is the quid pro quo for the community, providing them with other avenues to earn an income in exchange for not exploiting forest conservation areas.

Humans and Forests not Humans vs Forests

Balancing the needs and aspirations of the local community with forest protection, bearing in mind that these communities have the right to determine their future and how they make a living means that conservation is not always a guaranteed outcome.

We have so far enjoyed more success than failures, but we have also come across at least one village that has refused to take part in this process, preferring to retain their right to use the land. We should not discount the possibility that a few other villages in future exercises may choose the same path.

If the SDGs teach us anything it is that we cannot compartmentalise human issues and environmental issues. Humans with rights and needs, are now an inextricable part of the forest landscape. Real conservation can only happen based on an understanding of their motivations and finding a way to navigate and strike a balance between seemingly competing goals. We believe our community conservation partnerships have the potential to become a practical model of conservation precisely because they are based on compromise and negotiation with the people who live in the landscape.

Some may be disappointed because it will not always represent clear wins for conservation – but a truly workable model in the real world must take humans as well as forests into account, and if at the end of the day, this system ensures that agreed areas are meaningfully protected, then that will be a clear win for everyone. From our early experience in this process, we see that more communities are choosing to protect forests than not, and this gives us cause to be cautiously optimistic. Down the road, we hope to report that this initial optimism was well-founded as we continue to roll out these community conservation partnerships throughout our concessions.

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