The Palm Oil Complex

and how to take it down

Once upon a time, palm was the golden crop......

Oil palm was used by national governments to catapult smallholder farmers into the cash crop economy.[1]

 

Oil palm saved us from a food security crisis. It is most productive of all vegetable oil crops, the cheapest vegetable oil, and one of the most versatile. It is now used in 50% of all consumer goods, from lipstick to packaged food to body lotion. Altogether, it has lowered the price of food items for the poor, while facilitating the access of the middle class to a dazzling array of products.[2]

 

Palm oil was supposed to save us from our energy crisis, as a promising candidate for biofuels. It was believed that the carbon dioxide released during combustion was offset by the carbon sequestered by palm oil trees as they carried out photosynthesis.[3]

But it was, of course, too much to pin so much hopes on a mere commodity. Human actions, consumption patterns, market activities, and politics have snowballed, to cause an industrial complex to coalesce around palm oil.

The palm oil complex has transformed the production of palm oil, so it can meet the global demand for it and make a profit for it no matter the cost. It helps that that cost — accelerated deforestation, the stripping indigenous peoples of their ancestral lands, the forcing migrant workers to work in unsafe conditions for low pay, as well as the pushing out of smallholder farmers to enable the expansion of large plantations — is borne by the most intensely by vulnerable in society, and felt rather vaguely by the international community in the form of climate change. But the benefits of the palm oil complex benefit a select few, who through it, gain the power to entrench the status quo. The palm oil complex is embedded in the politics of palm oil producing nations, the banking institutions that invest in its expansion, and finally, the manufacturers and retails that feed our appetites.

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The Shadow of the Palm Oil Complex

In Singapore, we are certainly familiar with one of the palm oil complex’s effects — the haze, which is caused by clearing forests with fires for palm oil plantations.

 

It is astounding how helpless Singapore is in the face of the haze. Our city-state has spent a good portion of its existence trying to deter external threats. Its military expenditure per capita is second only to the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region [4], geared at granting us aerial and naval superiority in any war against our neighbours.[5]

And yet, when the annual dry season rolls about, the haze swallows up our skies, sucks up the air we need to breathe, sends us retreating from outdoor spaces into the confines of our homes. Civilian life comes to a standstill, because no one doubts the haze will harm their health if we are careless enough. But despite this existential threat upon our lives, every year we wait upon fortune’s favor, to see if the haze returns.  

Why is haze so hard an issue to resolve? Singapore has already resorted to multilateral arenas to resolve this issue. In 2014, all ASEAN nations ratified the legally binding ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution to reduce haze pollution.[6] Singapore has been tried levying diplomatic pressure on Indonesia for years.[7] But all this has failed to ward off the specter of the haze.

 

Why? Well, Singapore can pressure Indonesia all it wants; but the Indonesian state has itself been captured by business interests in the palm oil complex. State-owned enterprises continue to support its expansion. Even simple but potentially groundbreaking reforms, such as mapping out ownership of palm oil plantation concessions to facilitate the identification of who owned the land where forest fires started have been relentlessly stalled.[8] This is why despite the fact that even the Indonesian people themselves, who bear the brunt of the haze, cry out for help, they too wait upon the specter of the haze.

 

In light of this, many have argued that the nature of Singapore’s principal security concerns has changed. There is no enemy with a conventional force to deter and to punish for their aggression. Only the nebulous ether of global trade flows, shifting coalitions of patronage, from which deliquescent threats such as the haze emerge to strike at our homeland.[9]

But the footsteps of the palm oil complex do not just fall upon Singapore.

In nearby Malaysia, Sarawak, the oil palm industry has been spreading like lesions across the green skin of the landscape.

Already, a fifth of Sarawak’s forests have been converted to palm oil plantations.[10]

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The rapid logging and expansion of the palm oil industry has been driven by a massive state sponsored “subsidy” — the violent dispossession of indigenous Sarawakians of their land, whose legal rights to their land have been undermined.[11] This has decimated the wildlife in one of the most biodiverse places in the entire world. Meanwhile, Sarawakian elites and the federal government have taken millions in kickbacks from palm plantation companies. They are invested in this state of affairs.[12]

The result is that of an estimated 100,000 indigenous peoples who roamed the forests of Sarawak at the turn of this century, only the Penan people remain nomads.[13]

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The Penan depend on the forest for their lives, as they move camp following the cycles of fruiting trees and wild sago palm, hunting animals with their blowpipes whose darts are laced with a poison extracted from the milky latex of a tree. But deforestation has forced them to at least partially settle lest their lands are gobbled up by authorities or companies.[14]

Felled trees, landslides, soil erosion, river pollution, and the loss of tree canopy not rob the Penan of shelter, nutrition, and clean water, and also their history, their spiritual happiness, and their very lives.[15]

What is then left to do?

Just as it seems hopeless for the Penan to fight bulldozers, businessmen and politicians with their blowpipes, Singaporeans may too despair at what a little red dot can do to ward off the specter of the haze.

 

Indeed, little people have always been caught up in struggles against larger forces they barely comprehend. This is captured in a scene from John Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath that takes place during the Great Depression.

In this scene, a farmer threatens to shoot the man in a bulldozer that has been sent to forcefully evict him from the house and land he and family have owned and worked upon for generations. The man in the bulldozer protests that even if the tenant were to shoot him, his employer would simply hire someone else to tear down his home.

"That's so," the tenant said. "Who gave you orders? I'll go after him. He's the one to kill."

 

"You're wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, 'Clear those people out or it's your job.'"

 

"Well, there's a president of the bank. There's a board of directors. I'll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank." The driver said, "Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, 'Make the land show profit or we'll close you up.'" "But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don't aim to starve to death before I kill the man that's starving me." "I don't know. Maybe there's nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn't men at all. Maybe like you said, the property's doing it. Anyway I told you my orders."

 

"I got to figure," the tenant said. "We all got to figure. There's some way to stop this. It's not like lightning or earthquakes. We've got a bad thing made by men, and by God that's something we can change."

"That's so," the tenant said. "Who gave you orders? I'll go after him. He's the one to kill."

 

"You're wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, 'Clear those people out or it's your job.'"

 

"Well, there's a president of the bank. There's a board of directors. I'll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank." The driver said, "Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, 'Make the land show profit or we'll close you up.'" "But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don't aim to starve to death before I kill the man that's starving me." "I don't know. Maybe there's nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn't men at all. Maybe like you said, the property's doing it. Anyway I told you my orders."

 

"I got to figure," the tenant said. "We all got to figure. There's some way to stop this. It's not like lightning or earthquakes. We've got a bad thing made by men, and by God that's something we can change."

In the end, the tenant watches as his house is razed, daunted by the sheer complexity of the problem.[16] Like the tenant, the enemy that the Penan and Singaporeans find themselves faced with — the palm oil complex — feels like a many headed hydra, which has sunk its fangs into nearly every facet of the international political economy. Cut off one head, two more emerge

In the end, the tenant watches as his house is razed, daunted by the sheer complexity of the problem. Like the tenant, the enemy that the Penan and Singaporeans find themselves faced with — the palm oil complex — feels like a many headed hydra, which has sunk its fangs into nearly every facet of the international political economy. Cut off one head, two more emerge

And yet the tenant is not wrong when he says that we have a bad thing made by man, and that it is something we can change.

And yet the tenant is not wrong when he says that we have a bad thing made by man, and that it is something we can change.

In fact, he is so close to the truth of how this monstrosity can be taken down

The farmer only understood the futility of confronting his problem with a gun, when he rose above his limited point of view, to consider the larger historical scene — comprised of the interconnected lives and careers of a variety of individuals.

 

It is likewise such a transcendental feat of imagination that will reveal to us the blueprint to stopping the carnage of the palm oil complex.

 

If the Penan have survived, it is because they have already begun to fight this way. Like in legends, the only way to defeat the monstrosity of the palm oil complex is to find its weak spots. The way to find these spots is to deploy a resource trade cycle analysis model (RETRAC).

 

Conceptualized by AIDEnvironment, a RETRAC lays out the structure of the palm oil complex — a basic investment–natural resource exploitation–trade–consumption chain, with the government and NGOs as intervening regulatory power. It reveals multiple potential points of policy leverage, and the actors that need to be mobilized to push that lever.[17]

 

The idea is also that if palm oil is a many headed hydra with its fangs sunk in nearly every aspect of our capitalist-consumerist world, then why not, to borrow a turn of phrase from Britain’s wartime minister Churchill, bring the fight to the forests, the fight to the consumers, the fight to the manufacturers and retailers, the fight to the banks, and the fight to the great governmental halls of power, to cut off its every head from various positions in the battlefield, to defend the world at all costs.[18]

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[19]

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This dynamic has been termed the boomerang effect.[21]

Putting theory into practice — the Penan are located at the bottom as resource base — their forests are being cleared for palm oil plantations. Their survival thus hinges upon linking up with domestic NGOs for material support and know-how. These domestic NGOs too have little to no direct influence upon the Malaysian government, who have constrained their efforts to mobilize the Malaysian people against bad practices in the palm oil industry. They thus have to link up with their international counterparts.

 

Their counterparts in foreign countries, in turn, mobilize their own domestic audiences. They call for them to, as consumers, put pressure on key brand sensitive manufacturers and banks to withdraw support from destructive palm oil companies; as well as to, as citizens, lobby their governments to put pressure on the Malaysian government. This ripples back to hit the palm oil complex in Malaysia.[20]

 

 

It was first deployed by the Penan was in 1987, where they put up road blockades to halt logging into their territories and became the focus for an intensive international campaign.[22]

Here, it must be acknowledged that the story of the blockade is inextricably tied to one individual — Bruno Manser. A Swiss artist, Manser lived with the Penan for six and a half years. More than any other single actor, it is Manser who is most responsible for bringing the situation of the Penan to world attention.[23]

 

 

 

Before Manser, the Penan’s world was their forest. They imagined and experienced it as an intricate, living, and life-giving network which they were psychologically and cosmologically connected to. Time-honored territories and the place names of rivers and mountains linked past, present, and future generations of the Penan.[24] Thus, when men came with bulldozers strip their forests, it was as if these men were eroding their entire universe.

 

But through his advocacy, Manser brought the Penan’s cause to the wider world. As the Penan resisted logging operations with their blockades, numerous individual environmentalists began to visit them to document their plight for international audiences. These individuals frequently told the Penan of the efforts made on their behalf in Europe, Australia and the United States.[25] Through stories, these individuals connected the Penan and their forests to an even larger ecological universe — to a constellation of actors, who could add their currencies of power together, to chart a path through the tides of exploitation, to plow through political resistance and bring about reform.

 

 

 

 

Indeed, campaigning in Europe led to a European Parliament resolution calling for the suspension of Malaysian timber imports. Hundreds of local initiatives also sprang up and lobbied their local governments. In the Netherlands nearly half of local authorities were reported to have joined the boycott.[26]

 

This created a network that spans borders, communities, and even time itself. Till today, the baton has been passed from indigenous people, to domestic NGOs, to international NGOs through generations of leaders believing that protecting indigenous peoples and their forests protects us all.

 

For instance, consumer pressure in Europe and the United States has been so effectively leveraged, to spur No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE) pledges by palm oil buyers, that a significant amount of Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s landbank has become “stranded assets” on the balance sheet of palm oil companies, as they can no longer be viably be developed without violating buyers NPDE policies. While no estimates are available for Sarawak, in Indonesia, an estimated 30% of their landbank is at risk of becoming stranded assets.[27]

 

More recently, in 2017, the EU’s passed a resolution to phase out palm oil from biodiesel usage by 2030. This was a direct result of their transnational NGO campaigning.[28]

 

Together, these have prompted both the Indonesian and the Malaysian governments to put a moratorium on conversions of forests to oil palm plantations, and to push instead for increasing palm oil yields by increasing the productivity of existing plantations (although how well these moratoriums are enforced by local governments is another issue entirely).[29] We are now just a little closer to a world where palm oil is produced in a way that is socially and environmentally sustainable.

 

But a pressing concern is that while this transnational network is well established in Europe and the United States, campaigns there will increasingly experience diminishing returns.

 

Thus, perhaps as the sun sets in the West as an arena of contention, it is elsewhere we need to turn to for the rise of transnational activism networks.[30]

The Little Red Dot

Singaporean NGOs like the WWF have attempted to raise awareness in consumers about the importance of supporting products made with sustainable palm oil, as indicated by the RSPO label. The significance of their efforts will largely be symbolic, as in 2013, Singapore’s net imports of palm oil and palm kernel oil amounted to a measly 0.4 million tonnes, out of global production of 60.7 million tonnes.[31] Is this the most Singapore can do?

 

An astute analysis of Singapore’s position in the RETRAC model would reveal that it is in the realm of finance that the little red dot punches far, far above its weight. A study on loans provided to 16 major palm oil companies found that OCBC, DBS and UOB were among the 15 top providers of loans to these companies.[32] Another study of 180 forest risk companies in palm oil, pulp & paper, timber and rubber industries revealed that OCBC and DBS were among their top 10 financiers from 2010 to 2016.[33] While DBS has since 2016 set NDPE (no deforestation, no peat and no exploitation) policies, OCBC and UOB have not, though they too claim that they are for sustainable financing.

 

It is therefore evident that the support of Singaporeans is vital to subduing the palm oil complex. A clear and actionable strategy for Singaporeans to stop the haze and join the fight of the Penan is to pressure OCBC and UOB to undertake NDPE policies at minimum. In this way, plantation companies will have to — if they want continued financial support from these banks —stop draining peatlands (thereby preserving nature’s fireproof barriers and preventing the haze); as well as stop dispossessing and deforesting the land that belongs to indigenous groups like the Penan (thereby also preserving the rich ecology of forests).

 

And why stop there? Singaporeans can even push for these banking companies to fully support green financing, by also granting more generous loans for those innovating in green solutions. This also leverages upon Singapore’s strength as an emerging tech startup scene.

 

An example is Singapore-headquartered start-up Adatos.AI, which builds artificial intelligence solutions for satellite remote sensing. They recently advised a European client against an ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) investing risk on an Indonesian palm oil company, after close monitoring of their land assets using geolocation coordinates.[34] Such greater access to information on the behavior of palm oil companies would be game-changing for NGOs, who need proof before they pressure banks and brand-sensitive manufacturers to cut their support from exploitative palm oil companies.

 

Will this be enough to stop the palm oil complex? To save Singapore from the haze, and from being swallowed up by the seas, scorched by the sun due to climate change? Probably not. But this is where we have to start. And we are not fighting alone. Ours is but one of a million levers pushed about the globe, in the struggle to overturn the status quo.

 

All we need is to do is empower the indigenous people like the Penan to be, as they have been for centuries, the stewards of the lungs of the earth.

 

Indeed, to borrow a turn of phrase from Archimedes, give them a lever long enough, and a fulcrum on which to place it, and they shall move the world.

 

And truly, in this moment, the battle hinges upon the actions of our little red dot.

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Bibliography

Chain Reaction Research. ‘Banks Finance More Palm Oil Than Investors’, 3 February 2017. https://chainreactionresearch.com/reports/banks-finance-more-palm-oil-than-investors/.

Barry, Desker, and Ang Cheng Guan. Perspectives on the Security of Singapore: The First 50 Years. World Scientific, 2015.

Brosius, J. Peter. ‘Prior Transcripts, Divergent Paths: Resistance and Acquiescence to Logging in Sarawak, East Malaysia’. Comparative Studies in Society and History 39, no. 3 (1997): 468–510.

Nikkei Asian Review. ‘Christopher Tremewan: Singapore Faces a Diplomatic Squeeze’. Accessed 10 April 2020. https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Christopher-Tremewan-Singapore-faces-a-diplomatic-squeeze.

 

Cramb, Rob. ‘The Political Economy of Large-Scale Oil Palm Development in Sarawak’. In The Oil Palm Complex, edited by Rob Cramb and John F. McCarthy, 189–246. Smallholders, Agribusiness and the State in Indonesia and Malaysia. NUS Press, 2016. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1xz0km.11.

 

Cramb, Rob, and John F. McCarthy, eds. The Oil Palm Complex: Smallholders, Agribusiness and the State in Indonesia and Malaysia. NUS Press Pte Ltd, 2018. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1xz0km.

 

Adatos.AI. ‘EU Sustainable Finance Due-Diligence in Agriculture’. Accessed 10 April 2020. https://www.adatos.com/content/2019/11/13/case-study-monitoring-environmental-responsibilities.

 

‘FAOSTAT’. Accessed 10 April 2020. http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#home.

 

Ghani, Shareen. ‘The EU Wants to Phase out Palm Oil from Biofuels. Here’s Why That Might Be a Bad Idea’. World Economic Forum, 8 October 2019. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/10/the-eu-ban-on-using-palm-oil-in-biofuels-could-do-more-harm-than-good/.

 

‘Indonesia Urged to Follow “game-Changer” Malaysia on Palm Oil Maps’. Reuters, 13 December 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-asia-palmoil-maps-trfn-idUSKBN1YH1NA.

 

Keck, Margaret E., and Kathryn Sikkink. ‘Transnational Advocacy Networks in the Movement Society’. The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century, 1998, 217–38.

 

Levicharova, M., G. Thoumi, and E. Wakker. Indonesian Palm Oil’s Stranded Assets: 10 Million Football Fields of Undevelopable Land. Washington, DC: Chain Reaction Research. Retrieved from: https …, 2017.

 

McCarthy, John F., and Rob Cramb. ‘Conclusion’. In The Oil Palm Complex, edited by John F. McCarthy and Rob Cramb, 442–64. Smallholders, Agribusiness and the State in Indonesia and Malaysia. NUS Press, 2016. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1xz0km.19.

 

Meijaard, E., J. Garcia-Ulloa, D. Sheil, K.M. Carlson, S.A. Wich, D. Juffe-Bignoli, and T.M. Brooks, eds. Oil Palm and Biodiversity: A Situation Analysis by the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force. IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2018. https://doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.CH.2018.11.en.

 

Mohd Noor, Faisal M., Anja Gassner, Anne Terheggen, and Philip Dobie. ‘Beyond Sustainability Criteria and Principles in Palm Oil Production: Addressing Consumer Concerns through Insetting’. Ecology and Society 22, no. 2 (2017): art5. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-09172-220205.

 

Mukherjee, Ishani, and Benjamin K. Sovacool. ‘Palm Oil-Based Biofuels and Sustainability in Southeast Asia: A Review of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand’. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 37 (September 2014): 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2014.05.001.

 

PICKEN, TOM, WARD WARMERDAM, MARK GREGORY, and MEREL VAN DER MARK. ‘4.2 Decoupling International Finance from Deforestation, and the Need for Regulation’. Zero Deforestation: A Commitment to Change, n.d., 119.

 

‘Poison Shrimp, Porcupines, and Dolphins: Singapore Is Packing Some Serious Heat - VICE’. Accessed 10 April 2020. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/d3jagq/poison-shrimp-porcupines-and-dolphins-singapore-is-packing-some-serious-heat.

 

Pye, Oliver, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Universität Bonn, and Asia-Europe Foundation, eds. The Palm Oil Controversy in Southeast Asia: A Transnational Perspective. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2013.

 

Schleifer, Philip, and Yixian Sun. ‘Emerging Markets and Private Governance: The Political Economy of Sustainable Palm Oil in China and India’. Review of International Political Economy 25, no. 2 (4 March 2018): 190–214. https://doi.org/10.1080/09692290.2017.1418759.

 

‘Societies in Danger: Death of a People; Logging in the Penan Homeland | Cultural Survival’. Accessed 10 April 2020. https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/societies-danger-death-people-logging-penan-homeland.

 

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin, 2006.

 

Tan, Alan Khee-Jin. ‘The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution: Prospects for Compliance and Effectiveness in Post-Suharto Indonesia’. NYU Envtl. LJ 13 (2005): 647.

The Land We Lost. Sabhabat Alam, n.d.

 

National Geographic Society Newsroom. ‘The Penan Hunter-Gatherers of Sarawak’, 17 April 2014. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2014/04/17/the-penan-hunter-gatherers-of-sarawak/.

 

The International Churchill Society. ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’, 4 June 1940. https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches/

Endnotes

[1] McCarthy and Cramb, ‘Conclusion’.

[2] Mohd Noor et al., ‘Beyond Sustainability Criteria and Principles in Palm Oil Production’.

[3] Mukherjee and Sovacool, ‘Palm Oil-Based Biofuels and Sustainability in Southeast Asia’.

[4] ‘Christopher Tremewan’.

[5] ‘Poison Shrimp, Porcupines, and Dolphins: Singapore Is Packing Some Serious Heat - VICE’.

[6] Tan, ‘The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution: Prospects for Compliance and Effectiveness in Post-Suharto Indonesia’.

[7] Tan.

[8] ‘Indonesia Urged to Follow “game-Changer” Malaysia on Palm Oil Maps’.

[9] Barry and Guan, Perspectives on the Security of Singapore: The First 50 Years.

[10] The Land We Lost.

[11] Cramb, ‘The Political Economy of Large-Scale Oil Palm Development in Sarawak’.

[12] Cramb and McCarthy, The Oil Palm Complex.

[13] ‘Societies in Danger: Death of a People; Logging in the Penan Homeland | Cultural Survival’.

[14] ‘The Penan Hunter-Gatherers of Sarawak’.

[15] ‘Societies in Danger: Death of a People; Logging in the Penan Homeland | Cultural Survival’.

[16] Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.

[17] Pye et al., The Palm Oil Controversy in Southeast Asia.

[18] ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’.

[19] Pye et al., The Palm Oil Controversy in Southeast Asia.

[20] Pye et al.

[21] Keck and Sikkink, ‘Transnational Advocacy Networks in the Movement Society’.

[22] Pye et al., The Palm Oil Controversy in Southeast Asia.

[23] Brosius, ‘Prior Transcripts, Divergent Paths: Resistance and Acquiescence to Logging in Sarawak, East Malaysia’.

[24] ‘Societies in Danger: Death of a People; Logging in the Penan Homeland | Cultural Survival’.

[25] Brosius, ‘Prior Transcripts, Divergent Paths: Resistance and Acquiescence to Logging in Sarawak, East Malaysia’.

[26] Pye et al., The Palm Oil Controversy in Southeast Asia.

[27] Levicharova, Thoumi, and Wakker, Indonesian Palm Oil’s Stranded Assets: 10 Million Football Fields of Undevelopable Land.

[28] Ghani, ‘The EU Wants to Phase out Palm Oil from Biofuels. Here’s Why That Might Be a Bad Idea’.

[29] Meijaard et al., Oil Palm and Biodiversity.

[30] Schleifer and Sun, ‘Emerging Markets and Private Governance’.

[31] ‘FAOSTAT’.

[32] ‘Banks Finance More Palm Oil Than Investors’.

[33] PICKEN et al., ‘4.2 Decoupling International Finance from Deforestation, and the Need for Regulation’.

[34] ‘EU Sustainable Finance Due-Diligence in Agriculture’.

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