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25th Jun 2022

Palm oil plantations are now 'forests,' says EU

  • Indonesian palm crop awaiting transportation (Photo: friends of the earth)

The European Commission and some EU member states hope to redefine palm oil plantations as "forests," according to a leaked document from the EU executive.

Rules governing the use of biofuels were supposed to be designed to sort out the sustainable versions of the technology from their dirtier cousins following a massive backlash against it in 2008. At the time, an avalanche of reports revealed that many forms of the fuel source both increase greenhouse gas emissions and put pressure on food prices.

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The production of palm oil was one of the most egregious examples of the problem.

In the wake of the biofuels boom, there has been a rush to chop down rainforests to make way for palm oil plantations. The UN says that the growth in such plantations is now the main cause of rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Worse still are the land grabs and human rights abuses resulting from the lucrative business. In Indonesia, as EUobserver reported two years ago, when native communities complain about the loss of their lands, private security firms and police that collude with the oil companies crack down violently on protesters.

But in a manoeuvre that has shocked environmental campaigners, a draft commission communication offering guidance to EU member states on the use of biofuels has classified palm oil plantations - the source of one of the most destructive forms of biofuels - as "forests."

Essentially, the document argues that because palm oil plantations are tall enough and shady enough, they count as forests.

"Continuously forested areas are defined as areas where trees have reached, or can reach, at least heights of five metres, making up a crown cover of more than 30 percent," reads the jargon-filled document.

"They would normally include forest, forest plantations and other tree plantations such as palm oil. Short rotation coppice [the practice of repeatedly cutting young tree stems down] may qualify if it fulfils the height and canopy cover criteria."

"This means, for example, that a change from forest to oil palm plantation would not per se constitute a breach of the [sustainability criteria]. "

Green groups were outraged by the move. "Palm oil plantations are one of the very worst examples of the problems with biofuels. The spirit of the debate in 2008 was specifically to stop this sort of thing," Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth Europe told this website.

"If the commission and member states can't even get it right when dealing with palm oil, it's a pretty bad sign for biofuels as a whole. The palm oil industry has done a very good job lobbying over the last while."

The Malaysian Palm Oil Council for the last two years employed GPlus, the international lobbying outfit, to press their case in both Brussels and national capitals, and brought a number of ministers to Europe to meet with their counterparts on a couple of occasions, according to the firm.

The Brussels office of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council refused to comment on the matter.

The commission for its part does not comment on leaked texts but a spokesperson remarked that the draft communication will only be adopted by the new commission college and the new energy chief may or may not approve of the work the outgoing commission has performed on the dossier.

Much of the communication, which was due to be published in March, has provoked disagreement between different departments of the EU's civil service and so has been pushed up a level to commissioner cabinets.

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