In Praise of Complexity
by Claude Garcia, 25 June 2020

Before the sanitary crisis, with my colleague Alain RIVAL from CIRAD, we were quoted in a magazine for Swiss Investors saying: “Oil Palm consumption will continue rising. This is linked to the demographic growth coupled to the development of a middle class in emerging countries”. In January, prices were soaring, at more than 800 USD per metric ton. COVID-19 might have corrected that price, but the trends are unlikely to change, and the prospects for global consumption continue rising.

I started working on Oil Palm 6 years ago, as the Swiss National Foundation granted us funds for the OPAL project – Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes – a project we designed with Prof. Jaboury Ghazoul at ETH and our partners. I am an ecologist, specializing in tropical forestry. My entry point was biodiversity. Six years ago, I thought Oil Palm cultivation was one of the major drivers of deforestation in South East Asia. I knew it was a threat to highly iconic species and that it was linked to the livelihoods of local communities – the Dayaks, the Penans. What we discovered quickly as we began our research is that we were entering a minefield. Everybody had a very strong opinion on the issue. When we organized our first public conference at ETH, to present our project, we expected 20 people. More than 200 showed up and the auditorium was crammed, and many where hostile to the topic, or even to the fact there was research funded on it. As facilitator, I remember I had to cut short some of the interventions as they were passionate activist pleas when our aim was first to understand the topic. We did not want to take shortcuts.

We have encountered this in virtually all the forums were we have worked. Irrespective of the location and country, stakeholders, officials, NGOs and citizens have a strong position on a topic we have discovered to be so complex, it took me time and effort just to be undecided about. I’ll be blunt. We all have opinions and these opinions are biased, and seldom based on a rich and detailed understanding of the topic.

Let me give you a few examples about the lessons I have taken on the way. The palm was domesticated in Central Africa. It is being produced across the tropics, but 85% of the production is concentrated in Indonesia and Malaysia. The palm tree produces all year round, but the volume produced fluctuates with the seasons. One hectare of plantation is 5 to 6 times more productive than the other vegetable oils. In Colombia, the development of Oil Palm plantations is linked to the difficult peace process. Over there, the palm is planted on grasslands, meaning it is not linked to deforestation. The carbon stored in these plantations remains stable even after two rotations – that’s 40 to 50 years - and comparable or even higher to the carbon that is present in the grasslands. In Cameroon, there is a domestic market for crude palm oil. Artisanal mills pop up at the gates of the industrial mills, siphoning the fresh fruit bunches and leaving empty warehouses in the low season. The existence of the artisanal mill gives power to the small holders, it gives them options. Why would small holders prefer the artisanal mill? Because it pays cash and liquidity is a big constraint for them. The cost is that the trend contributes to the extremely low productivity of the country. Artisanal mills are not efficient and there is no control about effluents or waste. In Indonesia, local communities have seen their lives change thanks to the plantations, for the better according to their statements. Small holders are responsible for a significant share (up to 40 %) of deforestation and market based instruments. Market instruments and certifications are far from sufficient, but there is improvement.

And one last thing. Deforestation continues unabated, Soya and Beef are the main drivers, far before Oil Palm cultivation.

These are only some of the lessons I have drawn from working with stakeholders in the producing countries, in Switzerland and in Europe. Always finding that things are more complex than I thought. And that very few people had that larger picture in mind. Our job as scientists has been to listen to everybody, and to try to understand every point of view. We have developed negotiation tools that let people find solutions without taking shortcuts with complexity. We have helped people – small holders, industries, NGO and government officials – gain more depth in their understanding of the system. Surprisingly, even people with 20 years of experience still have a partial vision and can gain from considering things from a different perspective. Above all, our role was not to give people lessons, but to help them better visualize the outcomes of the choices they take so they can make more informed decisions.

I have seen shortsighted arguments on both sides. I don’t dispute the intentions behind those calling for a boycott. I denounce their shortsightedness on policy and social issues. I don’t blame those lobbying for a critical commodity for their country. I denounce their ignorance of ecological processes. There is no simple solution, and we cannot afford to fight each other while the climate crisis, poverty and the loss of biodiversity continue unabated. Fires will start again in a few weeks. All South Asia will be choking again. The world hotspot for deforestation today is Central Africa. The Amazon is set go up in flames again. We must abandon simplistic solutions, stop the blaming game and start working together to propose new rules, new strategies. Anger creates Fear. Fear prevents constructive dialogues. Landscapes without poverty, with elephants and tigers, and oil palm plantations are possible. We must set aside the feeling of righteousness, we need to abandon the confidence we have in our often-baseless opinions and start helping each other to shape a better future.

This contribution was prepared for the Weltwoche, see German version published here on 17 June 2020 under the title "Besser leben dank Palmöl" [a creative translation of the original title; call it journalistic freedom].

Artisanal oil producer in Uganda (photo credit Claude A. Garcia)

Artisanal oil producer in Uganda (photo credit Claude A. Garcia)