To resolve haze woes, boycott palm oil products

Indonesian workers extinguish the fire at a palm oil plantation at the Pampangan district in Ogan Komering Ilir, Indonesia.
Indonesian workers extinguish the fire at a palm oil plantation at the Pampangan district in Ogan Komering Ilir, Indonesia. PHOTO: REUTERS

Twenty years of efforts to stop oil palm plantation owners or their contract farmers from using the burning method to clear their land have failed.

On the one hand, it is clear that without government enforcement, individual oil palm farmers cannot be trusted to voluntarily cease burning their forested lands.

On the other hand, certain Asean governments have been unable or unwilling to enforce laws against the burning which causes haze.

There is, however, a third means of motivating the oil palm sector to cease the burning of forests: South-east Asia is a huge market of 600 million people. Palm oil is used not just for cooking; it is also present in everything from shower soap to lipsticks and processed foods that people buy at the supermarket.

Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are already informing the West's consumers about the terrible air pollution oil palm farming causes in South-east Asia, and are urging Europeans and Americans to boycott products containing palm oil for this reason.

NGOs in South-east Asia should also undertake similar consumer palm oil awareness campaigns in the region.

Activists could organise pan-Asean palm oil awareness campaigns that span all the region's languages and religions, and tap the Internet, social media and mainstream media.

An Asean-wide awareness campaign could communicate to South-east Asian consumers an extensive list of product brands that use South-east Asian palm oil - and urge a boycott of all such products, as well as palm oil used in cooking.

By informing South-east Asia's 600 million people about the connection between their air pollution and the cooking oil and soaps they use, the campaign would hit palm oil marketing conglomerates right in their wallets.

More than any government law or good intention, this will create a powerful economic incentive for the industry to reform its ways.

If, several years after the problem is solved, haze reappears over South-east Asia's skies, the campaign should be immediately restarted.

Eric J. Brooks

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline 'To resolve haze woes, boycott palm oil products'. Print Edition | Subscribe