Borneo’s Industry-Environment Balancing Act

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Deforestation in Indonesia has led some to demand tighter standards for the multi-billion-dollar industry.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia The island of Borneo is on the front line of an ongoing struggle to find a balance between the environment and commerce.

Borneo is home to an incredibly diverse ecosystem in one of the oldest rainforests in the world. But it is also home to a booming palm oil industry, which is considered to be a major contributor to deforestation.

In West Kalimantan province, in the Indonesian section of Borneo, Karmele Llano Sanchez takes in at least 20 new orang-utans every year at a centre for endangered primates.

“The numbers are increasing,” Sanchez, the programme director for International Animal Rescue (IAR), told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview. “They are always increasing.”

At one time, Sanchez was hopeful that the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) would succeed in its goal to make plantation companies more responsible and slow the pace of deforestation. But orang-utans continue to be driven from their treetop homes.

Over the past four years, Sanchez has lodged a number of complaints about oil palm companies that she said are breaching the conditions of their RSPO membership. “It’s going very slowly,” she said. “We believe that they continue to do things that contravene the principles and criteria of the RSPO.”

Creating standards

The RSPO began 10 years ago as an initiative between NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund, planters, mills and traders to improve sustainability in the multi-billion dollar palm oil industry, and to make companies do business more responsibly.

Now, the RSPO is facing criticism – not only from those who believe it is too weak, but also from those who think its standards are too stringent. “RSPO’s biggest challenge is to evolve as a standard for all palm oil producers,” Reza Azmi, executive director of Wild Asia, an environmental group that works with palm oil smallholders, told Al Jazeera.

“The standard – the way it’s managed and its codified rules – will need to adapt to accommodate smaller producers, producers from emerging palm regions, and grow to be a minimum standard for all; not an exclusive club of large, publicly listed corporations.”

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Borneo’s Industry-Environment Balancing Act was written by Kate Mayberry, Al Jazeera, November 17, 2014.

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