Working on European cooperation with South East Asia has been one of my great joys as an MEP. The Southeast Asia and ASEAN regions are among the most integrated in the world; we have much to learn as well as trade with one another. However, an ongoing issue over the last decade has been over palm oil. In 2017, close to three quarters of the EU’s palm oil imports came from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.
The 2009 Renewable Energy Directive classified palm oil as a sustainable source of biofuels, so much was used for biodiesel. As biofuels were seen as reducing GHG emissions, concrete EU targets for food-based biofuels caused imports to grow.
“It is therefore opportune that a joint working group between the EU and the ASEAN Member States has been established to address palm oil-related issues”
However, we have since seen another aspect of palm oil production, linking it to deforestation, ecosystem and biodiversity degradation as well as problematic working conditions. Changes were needed to ensure that palm oil use was sustainable. The 2018 revision of the Renewable Energy Directive was an important step towards guaranteeing that biofuel crops would no longer be sourced from recently deforested areas or peatlands. This was an unavoidable and correct decision.
Many claimed that this constituted an outright ban on palm oil imports. Although incorrect, imports fell and the impact on the Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai economies was stark. In Malaysia alone as many as 18.5 million people are directly or indirectly employed in the industry, and the EU remains Indonesia’s second-largest export destination.
It is no surprise that European restrictions have caused furore in these nations. While the sustainability agenda is of vital importance, we in the EU must not forget our responsibility towards our partners in South East Asia and to the millions whose livelihoods depend on our trade. It is therefore opportune that a joint working group between the EU and the ASEAN Member States to address palm oil-related issues has been established.
I see the opportunity for reconciliation and for cooperation in making the palm oil industry a sustainable one, and also making forest maintenance an economically viable alternative, making standing trees more valuable than empty clearings.