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Voices for the Climate Echoes Concerns over Palm Oil Expansion at COP20

By Amanda Monaco, EIA Forest Team Fellow

At the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held in Lima December 1 through 14, a series of speakers presenting at the “Voices for Climate, Indigenous Pavilion” focused on drivers of deforestation, highlighting the production of palm oil as a rising threat to forests and human rights.

The Indigenous Pavilion was a space for dialogue about the role that Indigenous peoples can play in preventing deforestation and climate change, and the disproportional effect that these phenomena have on those communities. Organized by AIDESEP (the largest national indigenous federation in Peru) and funded by the UN and the government of Norway, the Indigenous Pavilion hosted more than 40 speaker panels and welcomed over 2,000 people each day between December 2nd and 12th. Attendees ranged from students on school field trips to indigenous community representatives, COP attendees, and even the former President of Peru, Alejandro Toledo. In addition to the Indigenous Pavilion, AIDESEP also hosted 31 speaker panels inside the building where the official COP negotiations took place.

More than 250 people attended the two events on palm oil on December 10th and 11th at the Indigenous Pavilion. With speakers from indigenous communities, indigenous and forest advocacy organizations, and academia, these events explored extractive industries and drivers of deforestation in indigenous territories.

At an official side event in the COP negotiations venue, EIA’s Peru Programs Director Julia Urrunaga and Forest Specialist Dhaynee Orbegozo Sanchez spoke to the audience about the gaps in Peru’s forestry and land use planning laws. Since much of Peru’s rainforest is not classified under a land use planning scheme or protected by forestry laws, the Peruvian government is allowing private palm oil companies to classify the territory as part of their applications for concessions. Driven by their interest in profiting from the land, and basing their analysis on the land’s soil characteristics, these companies are able to classify concession areas as agricultural land despite abundant biodiversity and tree cover. If the government does not create a land use strategy that balances the need to conserve the rainforest with economic productivity, the current pattern could allow the entire rainforest to be classified as agricultural land and therefore be deforested bit by bit.

Additionally, Peru’s national level regulations of the palm oil industry are vague, allowing regional governments to set their own policies regarding approval and regulation of palm oil projects. Urrunaga and Orbegozo explained that this method of policymaking is worrisome because regional government officials are much more susceptible to bribery from palm oil companies and have little oversight from the national government. Further, the Peruvian government has even declared palm oil to be in the national interest, and accordingly has enacted significant tax incentives for palm oil investment.

Palm oil as a driver of deforestation was also emphasized at the Global Landscapes Forum, coordinated by CIFOR, the FAO, and the UNEP, where speakers highlighted the threats of palm oil development to forests along with other commodities such as soy and cattle grazing.

At an event about palm oil at the Peoples’ Summit—another space for indigenous dialogue parallel to the COP—AIDESEP’s Forestry Advisor Roberto Espinoza said, “Palm oil is the number one threat in Peru now, because it expands much further than oil or mining operations. Palm oil makes the rainforest simply disappear.”

In Malaysia, Indonesia, and countries in the Congo Basin and the Amazon Basin, palm oil companies are buying up huge swaths of rainforest in order to satisfy increasing demand for the product, which is used in biodiesel, many processed foods, shampoos, soaps, and even chocolate.

As companies look toward countries in the Amazon Basin as sites for new palm oil plantations, indigenous communities and environmental advocates warn about the patterns of deforestation, displacement, and conflict with local communities that accompany oil palm production.

One individual from Curvarado, Colombia described the devastating effects of palm oil expansion on human and land rights in Colombia. After the Colombian army essentially ceded control of an area to a paramilitary group in 1997, this paramilitary group invited palm oil companies into the region, agreeing to intimidate locals and coerce them to sell their land. Members of the community were threatened by palm oil companies and several members were attacked before they could flee the territory later that year. While a 2011 government initiative is slowly returning land in the region to some communities and some palm oil businessmen have been prosecuted for forced displacement and violation of environmental laws, this community is still risking their lives to fight for restitution of their lands.

If we are to find solutions to climate change, we must address the main drivers of deforestation. As Tropical forests across the world are in danger from the steadily increasing reach of the palm oil industry, which is projected to expand exponentially as global demand increases. Unless we put strict limitations on the industry, efforts to stop climate change will be defeated by massive carbon emissions from palm oil plantations in tropical forests.

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