The African oil palm is currently the most productive vegetable oil crop in the world, creating by far the highest yields from the smallest areas, and feeding an increasing global demand for oil and its derivatives. Because of this high productivity, the oil palm industry has been growing rapidly, especially in the South-East Asian tropics, but increasingly also in the African and American tropics. The plant depends on high temperatures and high humidity and its ecological niche therefore overlaps to a high degree with areas of high biodiversity value in current or former tropical rainforest areas. These are also generally areas with relatively high levels of poverty, which, on the one hand, has been used to promote the oil palm industry as a driver of poverty alleviation, but on the other hand, had also led to accusations of causing social conflicts in regions of unclear land tenure.
The debate on the pros and cons of palm oil has for decades been highly polarized, but not always informed by objective facts. There have been frequent calls for prohibitions on the development of oil palm, tariffs on its imports, and a ban of palm oil from supermarket shelves. This has done little to reduce the growth of the industry. Increasingly there is movement towards collaboration between the non-governmental sector and the industry towards increasing the social and environmental sustainability of oil palm. It remains unclearly, however, what this exactly means on the ground, how such sustainability is legally and politically facilitated, and how various trade-offs between social, economic and environmental objectives are met.
The IUCN Oil Palm Task Force aims to inform the debate on the sustainability of palm oil and give guidance to the IUCN about its policies and strategies that affect or are affected by palm oil. We aim to make use of the IUCN’s extensive knowledge networks on biodiversity and environmental issues, social, economic and cultural issues, and policy to comprehensive guide thinking on the complex issues of agro-industrial and small-holder oil palm in the world’s tropical regions.
Our objectives in the period 2017-2020 are to:
1. Conduct a situation analysis to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the reality of oil palm sustainability, and what could be done to improve it;
2. Act as an authoritative advisory body on oil palm and how this relates to global sustainability objectives, and an intermediary between the oil palm industry, the IUCN network, and the other stakeholders in the oil palm discussions.
The Oil Palm Task Force was formally established in 2016.