This makes for a very complex debate, which is what this site is all about.
My name is Martin Stevenson and I’m an author and journalist based in Kuala Lumpur. Palmoilresearch.org is the home for my research as I try to untangle the palm oil debate and weave it into a book.
This research started in 2013 when I touched on palm oil in a book I was writing on sustainable tourism in Southeast Asia. Palm oil came up when I was looking at Malaysia's growing 'jungle' tourism industry and what that meant for forestry and agriculture.
I knew that palm oil was 'bad', but during that first research I found out – embarrassingly quickly - that I didn’t know why. Not ‘Why is palm oil bad?’ but ‘Why do I think palm oil is bad?’
Whether my opinion of palm oil was right or wrong wasn’t the question. What worried me was that I had an opinion, and no idea where I'd got it from. The reading I did for that book revealed that I knew only a fraction of what there was to know about the subject.
I don't expect to know everything about everything, but I'm a journalist and a news junkie and if you open enough newspapers things tend to filter down to you. For example, I have no interest in football. None whatsoever. But even I could have a good stab at naming the top 5 English clubs. In the same way, palm oil information was 'filtering down' to me. I’d never actively looked into palm oil production before that first research: I just knew there was a problem. How could I be so sure about something, while knowing so little about it? Where was I getting my information from, and why was it so limited?
A few months and a lot of reading later I had a better idea of what the debate was about. The problem was the amount of digging I had to do to get there. In order to get beyond the dominant narrative of orangutans, deforestation and boycotts I really had to put my journalist’s hat on. When an industry is under such scrutiny you expect it to close ranks, but the NGO websites weren’t exactly packed with detail either. One of the most informative pages on palm oil certification belonged to Unilever. Unilever! Something is seriously wrong with a public debate when the world’s largest buyer of palm oil is giving us more information than environmentalists or animal activists. Why isn’t the information more readily available?
Most importantly, if we’re not being given the information we need, how can we be part of the solution?
Having finished the sustainable tourism book, that question became the topic for this book.
If you’re reading a website called Palm Oil Research, you’re reading it for a reason (and you're probably better informed than I was when I started out). You're also probably wondering where I stand on the debate now.
Living in Malaysia I can see both the threats and the benefits that palm oil represents for the country, its environment, its wildlife, its people and its economy. This, and the fact that I’m going back to square one for the research, means that I am starting this project neither pro- not anti-palm oil. There are as many positions in this debate as there are stakeholders. I’m not interested in who’s right, I’m interested in finding out who has the best proposal for a solution.
I've been reading around the subject for while now so I have a few 'ideas' of course. For example, I see the results of deforestation a couple of times a year when the 'haze' from Indonesian forest fires engulfs Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, and I find it difficult to see how a boycott is a realistic aim (I’ll write more about that in a future Topic), but for now, I’m going to perch myself comfortably on the fence, and see what I can find out.
I’ve set this site up as the scaffolding to build the book. This blog is where you’ll be able to follow the research, and the Topics section is where I deal with larger questions in more detail. I also have a Resources section where I keep my research materials, links and statistics as I come across them.
With other sites I've set up for previous projects, some of the best research, ideas and feedback has come from readers. If you have something you'd like to contribute, please feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My first question is not about conservation or global supply chains or even palm oil. It’s about language, and how the palm oil debate is explained to us - the consumers.
For more read ‘When Words Fail Us’