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Front. For. Glob. Change | doi: 10.3389/ffgc.2019.00022

The moral minefield of ethical oil palm and sustainable development

  • 1Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Brunei
  • 2Borneo Futures, Brunei
  • 3University of Queensland, Australia
  • 4Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway

The environmental impacts of the palm oil industry are widely recognised. Unsurprisingly, many people, including many conservation pundits, consider oil palm a major evil. What is less widely recognized is the extent to which this industry has benefited people. Oil palm development, if well-planned and managed, can provide improved incomes and employment and generate investments in services and infrastructure. These alternative viewpoints fuel a polarised debate in which oil palm is alternatively seen as a gift from god or a crime against humanity. Stepping outside this rhetorical extremism is necessary if we seek resolution and pragmatic advances. An important question is how to plan, guide and assess oil palm developments to foster the greatest benefits and least harm. Such questions are particularly relevant in a global context in which many voices call for constraining oil palm developments and boycotting palm oil, but also for adhering to sustainable development goals. What opportunities are available to people in tropical forest regions if oil palm developments are prohibited? Broader ethical questions also play out in the contexts of biofuels and food security and of competition among oil crops, especially the crops at higher latitudes (e.g., soy, maize, sunflower, rapeseed, olive), versus the tropical oils (oil palm and coconut). We here explore some of the questions of ethics related to the production and use of palm oil and other vegetable oils. The goal of this article is not to answer these contested questions but rather to highlight some of the nuances that are often omitted in current debates. Judgements will reflect perspectives with tropical producers and temperate consumers framing and assessing the issues differently. Addressing gaps in understanding on ethics of palm oil production, and avoiding double-standards, will help find a shared framework for development involving oil palm and other oil crops. A commitment to ethical consistency, where double standards are recognised and avoided, offers a potential way forward.

Keywords: Sustainable development goals (SDG), Tropical Forest, Agriculture, Ethic and Development, Environmental conservation, Global equality

Received: 19 Feb 2019; Accepted: 02 May 2019.

Edited by:

Janice Ser Huay Lee, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Reviewed by:

Peter Oosterveer, Wageningen University & Research, Netherlands
Lesley M. Potter, Australian National University, Australia  

Copyright: © 2019 Meijaard and Sheil. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Prof. Erik Meijaard, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, emeijaard@gmail.com