Palm oil has spelled controversy across Southeast Asia for its environmental and social impacts. But – if planned right – palm oil development and biodiversity conservation in Myanmar could happen together.
Launched at Myanmar's first workshop on the development of a sustainable plantation sector on 28 June, 2014, a study by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) shows that most biodiversity-rich forests in Myanmar's Tanintharyi region are located inland along the Myanmar-Thai border, while most land suitable for palm oil cultivation is located along the coast, where forests are already too degraded to support threatened species.
"Myanmar has an opportunity to develop its palm oil sector sustainably by planning for agricultural conversion in areas that are already severely degraded and leaving forested habitat untouched," said FFI's Myanmar Director, Frank Momberg.
Myanmar's Tanintharyi region is one of the country's most important biodiversity areas with 2.5 million hectares of intact lowland rainforest home to globally threatened animals including tigers, leopards, elephants, tapirs, Malayan sun bears and Gurney's Pitta, a colourful ground-dwelling bird found nowhere else in the world.
Tanintharyi is also the only area with the right soil and climate conditions to grow oil palm in Myanmar. Fuelled by a need to meet Myanmar's demand for cooking oil and reduce the high cost of palm oil imports (which cost the country $376 million in 2012 from Indonesia and Malaysia), to date over 140,000 hectares of oil palm have been planted and 400,000 hectares allocated to over 40 local and three international companies.
"Plantation crops play a critical role in Myanmar's national development strategy and are a potential source of significant benefits," explained Frank. "However, the social and environmental impacts of the plantation sector, particularly palm oil, have drawn criticism across Southeast Asia."
But government enthusiasm for political reform and a growing focus on corporate social responsibility suggest that Myanmar's palm oil sector could be poised for change.
On 28 June, co-hosts FFI and the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) brought together plantation companies, government agencies and civil society organisations in Yangon to discuss the sustainable development of Myanmar's palm oil industry. Key stakeholders at the European Union-funded workshop committed to set up a sustainable palm oil learning group as a next step towards creating a sustainable palm oil sector in the country.
The learning group will explore the requirements and potential benefits of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – an international sustainability standard – in Myanmar, having been motivated by Darrel Webber, Secretary General of the RSPO who gave the keynote speech at the event.
"There is a huge opportunity to develop Myanmar's palm oil sector sustainably drawing on the wealth of information and experience internationally and applying this in Myanmar," said Anna Lyons, FFI's Programme Manager, Agricultural Landscapes for Asia-Pacific.
FFI is working with government and industry to ensure that plantation development doesn't happen at the expense of Myanmar's incredible biodiversity and rare species.
Discussions with diverse stakeholders, like those during the workshop, together with better land use planning based on the hard evidence presented in FFI's recent study are just what is needed to guide decisions that can set Myanmar's palm oil industry on a sustainable path.
These efforts are part of a wider ridge-to-reef conservation programme for the Tanintharyi landscape, implemented in collaboration with the Myanmar Forest Department and a number of local, national and international collaborators and stakeholders, with support from the European Union, Helmsley Foundation and Fondation Segré.
The ridge-to-reef programme will establish two new protected areas for Myanmar (one terrestrial and one marine) while ensuring wider protection in Tanintharyi through community engagement, development of good practice for plantation development and integrating biodiversity into planning processes.
Roland Kobia, European Union Ambassador to Myanmar, explained, "Through this project, the EU intends to support Myanmar in protecting its most important biodiversity sites. The workshop provides the opportunity to further discuss ways of making business differently in Myanmar, and ensuring economic activities are developed in an environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive way."