Indonesia must do more to clean up palm oil's image

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is waging a diplomatic battle to "tear down the barriers" that threaten global demand for one of the country's biggest exports -- palm oil.

While his government and the industry agree that there are genuine environmental concerns associated with palm oil plantations, they argue that Indonesia has made a lot of efforts to rein in problems such as deforestation, and that cases of nonsustainable practices cited by anti-palm oil action groups are not representative of the whole industry. They say developed countries have used these partial accounts to justify trade barriers designed to shield their own products under the pretext of environmental protection.

When Widodo met US President Barack Obama and Herman Van Rompuy, then-president of the European Council, in November, he demanded that they lift restrictions on palm oil imports.

But diplomacy alone is not enough. Widodo will find that the biggest challenge to the palm oil trade -- poor governance -- is at home. More needs to be done to address environmentalists' concerns about the industry and to convince the world that it is fine to consume Indonesian palm oil.

Shofwan al Banna Choiruzzad is the executive secretary of the ASEAN Study Center at the University of Indonesia. He is also a lecturer in the university's international relations department.

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