The global palm oil trade is an important geographical issue taught in many classrooms. To help geography teachers and students understand the causes and potential impacts of Indonesia's recent export ban, and the unexpected inclusion of palm oil in it, we sat down with Tania Murray Li, recent co-author with Pujo Semedi, of the book Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone.
A lesson worksheet for use with this interview can be found here.
1. Could you begin by explaining why Indonesia has banned palm oil exports?
The government imposed the export ban to keep all the oil supply in the country. Around 30% of Indonesia’s palm oil is consumed domestically, but consumer prices have risen sharply reflecting a steep rise in the global market price.
The price of palm oil on the global market has risen 84% in the past year and very steeply in March/April. Like some other commodity prices, it has been affected by the war in Ukraine where supplies of sunflower oil have been disrupted.
2. What impact do you think this is likely to have on deforestation rates in Indonesia?
The ban is a move by the President to show that he is responsive to the concerns of consumers who face inflation in their food budget. It is intended to be a temporary measure. As soon as the domestic market is flooded with oil and prices decrease, the ban will be lifted.
The ban has nothing to do with government concerns over deforestation which is a long term problem linked to the expansion of oil palm plantations. The plantations are still there and continue to produce.
3. Is it possible that this export ban might benefit small farmers in Indonesia?
Sadly, the opposite is true. The ban has caused a steep drop in the price that small farmers receive for their oil palm fruit, and they worry that the mills will stop buying their fruit altogether as their storage tanks fill up.
Small farmers who grow other crops might like the ban from a consumer perspective – they too have to buy cooking oil for their families.
4. How have transnational corporations responded to Indonesia’s export ban?
The oil palm industry association GAPKI has protested against the ban which it sees as an unnecessary disruption to their operations. To reassure them, the President has confirmed that the ban will be temporary.
5. Overall, what is your assessment of the impact the ban will have, socially environmentally and economically?
Its main effects will be to cause suffering to the small oil palm farmers, to give some temporary relief to consumers, and maybe to give a boost to the president’s popularity. It is not intended to be transformational: the big changes that are needed to bring the oil palm industry under control, protect forests and foster sustainable livelihoods for Indonesia’s farmers are nowhere on the horizon, thus far.
Tania Murray Li Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto. She has written or edited several books on development, indigeneity, land rights and politics in Southeast Asia, with a particular focus on Indonesia. Her recent article for Decolonising Geography, entitled 'Deforestation and development: A decolonial perspective from Indonesia', can be read here. Her most recent book, co-authored with Pujo Semedi, is Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone. The introduction to that book can be read via the Duke University Press website here, and Tania’s personal website can be found here.