A ‘middle way’ for Indonesian fires

Planetary health solutions that protect the environment and promote development have been hard to find. Eco-certification of palm oil that restricts fires also reduces local poverty in Indonesia, but only in communities integrated into the market.

Where there is fire, there is the smoke of contested truths and contentious debates over its causes and consequences. For example, where forests are burnt to establish oil palm plantations, there are debates between those promoting economic development and those wanting to protect the environment1,2. Advocates contend that oil palm plantations create jobs and boost flagging regional economies. Critics retort that they destroy habitats for orangutans and other critters, cause widespread air and water pollution, and undermine traditional cultures and human rights. Eco-certification initiatives such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) promise the middle way — protecting the environment, while benefiting local people. Writing in Nature Sustainability, Santika and colleagues3 examine this proposition and weigh in on the environment–poverty debate with carefully marshalled data. They conclude in favour of the proposition, but only under some conditions and for some dimensions of poverty.

Ever since Brundtland’s rallying call 35 years ago, scholars and practitioners have been grappling with the concept of ‘sustainable development’ to secure our planet’s health. Proposed solutions to planetary health have ranged from tighter regulation and financial incentives to quasi-formal community norms to corporate bargaining and deal making. Voluntary eco-certification schemes such as RSPO have emerged as part of a new wave of market friendly solutions. In principle, third parties could ‘certify’ and thereby incentivize firms and farms to embrace environmental and social safeguards in oil palm plantations. However, implementation has been the Achilles heel of planetary health policies, including RSPO4. Thus, we do not know if the principle of RSPO works in practice.

Santika et al. study RSPO in Indonesia, source of more than half of the global production of palm oil. They compile data over a roughly 20-year time frame for approximately 35,000 Indonesian villages, some with RSPO-certified oil palm plantations, others with oil palm plantations that have not been certified, and others that serve as ‘control’ villages (without oil palm). They trace landscape evolution from pristine forests to mixed agricultural use to oil palm plantations. Critically, they compile data on both socioeconomic and socio–ecological dimensions of poverty in each community, creating a multidimensional poverty index.

Responding to calls for more rigorous impact evaluation of conservation interventions, they explicitly consider what would have happened if plantations were not RSPO certified (the counterfactual). They carefully construct a dataset with observations before and after the establishment of plantations and RSPO certification in each of the three types of villages in several major Indonesian provinces, so that they can test whether RSPO reduced poverty. They find that on the whole, RSPO increased poverty — counter to its goals. But this was not true across all villages and all dimensions of well-being. Certification reduced poverty in villages that were market oriented in their livelihood strategies at baseline, but increased poverty in villages that initially had subsistence livelihoods. Across village types, certification improved typical measures of socioeconomic development (such as material assets), but led to worse socio–ecological outcomes (such as air and water pollution).

Their work is important for at least three reasons. First, we should never draw conclusions about policies based on one study alone. In this regard, the authors add to and confirm what a few others have found for environmental and poverty outcomes of RSPO in Indonesia as well as eco-certification schemes more generally5,6,7. Second, they respond to calls for scholars to go beyond explaining whether some policy works, but also to uncover for whom, where and in what ways8. Third, in doing so, they offer a cautionary tale for the policy community: RSPO is not a panacea for sustainable development that can be applied everywhere, but should be spatially targeted to communities where the conditions are right. This adds to a small set of impact evaluations that identify particular conditions under which conservation policies also help mitigate poverty9.

Despite these ambitious efforts, there are limits to what we can learn from the study. First, the mechanism remains a bit of a black box: we do not discover what was done under the auspices of RSPO to reduce (or increase) poverty. Second, the strong reliance on the power of inductive logic to mine through large datasets for a pattern comes at the expense of explaining why we might see what they find. Such under-theorizing is a recurring mistake among scholars. The wider implications and applicability of results are easier to understand when they are placed in the context of a theory-of-change for an intervention — in this case, the path expected to link certification to poverty reduction, and the moderating factors that could cause that path to diverge. Finally, schemes such as RSPO generate a wide range of biophysical and socioeconomic benefits and costs. Reducing poverty in the communities with plantations is unlikely to be enough for politicians, bureaucrats, corporations, donors, civil society and global citizens to support RSPO10.

Notwithstanding these limitations (which we hope will be addressed in future research), Santika et al. have taken an important step towards understanding eco-certification impacts. They show that, in Indonesia at least, RSPO impacts depend on the extent of market integration. We should now be warned that this eco-certification scheme could unintentionally help cement economic inequalities across villages. With this study, the authors demonstrate how scholars are moving beyond simply identifying planetary health crises (for example, oil palm imposes environmental costs) to showing us what happens when solutions (for example, eco-certification) are implemented on the ground.


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Correspondence to Subhrendu K. Pattanayak or Erin Sills.

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Pattanayak, S.K., Sills, E. A ‘middle way’ for Indonesian fires. Nat Sustain 4, 83–84 (2021).

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