Special Reporting Project: Palm Oil

The products of the oil palm tree are ubiquitous in consumer goods; with rising prices, plantations are proliferating in Indonesia, Malaysia, West Africa, equatorial Latin America, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Yet the industry is far more complex than is generally portrayed to the world.

Mongabay seeks to commission articles on the sector from journalists across the globe. These will examine a variety of aspects of the industry, many of which have not been closely considered. We welcome proposals for conventional news stories, in-depth features, investigative reports, profiles, and case studies. We will also consider proposals for fully edited and produced videos of up to 10 minutes in length.

Each story will be between 800 and 2,000 words in length and will include quotes from at least three original interviews. Authors will be expected to provide five to 10 publishable photos free for Mongabay’s use to accompany their articles, along with captions and photo credits.

Opinion pieces, or commentaries, will not be considered for this project and are not paid opportunities. Please share commentary pitches using this form and refer to submission guidelines here.

Mongabay will negotiate all fees and contracts on a per-story basis. Completed stories will be paid on a per word or fixed fee basis, with rates depending primarily on the journalist’s experience.  Mongabay.com publishes under an open Creative Commons license that allows for sharing, translation, and re-posting.  More information on Mongabay’s editorial standards and practice can be found here.

How to submit your story pitch

To send Mongabay a pitch, please be prepared to also share your resume/portfolio along with three samples of your work. The story pitch should be roughly 500 words in length and include a title for the project. Viable pitches will clearly explain the specific subject you would like to write about in detail and your approach to covering it, and describe a few potential sources. Pitches for video-led stories should also include a shot list and a list of expected interviews.

Support for travel expenses may also be provided by Mongabay. Please include a preliminary travel plan and budget estimate (using this template) if support for travel expenses will be required to carry out reporting. Do not include payments for your work in this budget estimate. Please also describe COVID-19-related precautions you intend to take and any travel restrictions that may impact your plans.

Suggested reporting themes

Below is a list of question prompts, a series of topics about which reporters and analysts are invited to pitch sharply focused stories. If a topic does not appear below, you can still propose a story about it.

Finance and economics

  • How are falling palm oil prices reverberating throughout the industry? How are they affecting companies, workers, communities?
  • Are any jurisdictions seeing incentives to adopt better social and environmental policies for palm oil production?
  • Are any banks offering benefits like preferential credit to “good” actors in the palm oil sector?
  • Are poor environmental practices affecting companies’ bottom lines on a scale meaningful for investors and financiers?
  • Are financial sector traders accounting for environmental performance in assessing equities and bonds they purchase? Are environmental concerns showing up in risk assessments? What are financiers and investors really looking at when they assess palm oil companies?

Effectiveness of activism

  • How are NGOs innovating to reach financiers and companies? Are their reports and campaigns getting through?
  • What is the effectiveness of palm oil campaigns in consumer markets (e.g. is the claim that Norwegians’ palm oil consumption has plunged due to campaigns true? If so, how did that come about?)
  • How is awareness of palm oil issues changing among consumers in Indonesia? India? China? Elsewhere?
  • How do publicly listed companies compare to private firms in terms of exposure and responsiveness to campaigners?

Communities and labor

  • How are plantation developers approaching communities whose land they seek?
  • How are subsistence communities that choose oil palm dealing with the transition to a cash economy?
  • Are communities experiencing pressure to sign on with oil palm companies? From who or where?
  • Are there certain characteristics of communities that oppose palm oil?
  • How are communities responding to zero-deforestation commitments?
  • How is implementation of the Indonesian Constitutional Court’s 2013 decision on indigenous land rights progressing with respect to land conflicts involving oil palm plantations?
  • Has there been any progress reducing violent responses from police and security forces on behalf of the palm oil industry when a land dispute with a community escalates?
  • Is respect for labor rights improving?
  • Is forced labor on plantations increasing or diminishing?

Palm oil biofuels

  • What are the politics behind Indonesia’s proposal to divert part of its diesel subsidy savings to its palm oil biofuel subsidy?
  • How would Indonesia’s proposed increase to its biofuel subsidy affect forests and forest-dependent communities?
  • Are there any lessons to be learned for Indonesia from biofuel subsidies in other countries?
  • Is rich-country protectionism driving domestic biofuel policies in producer countries? Is the developing world copying rich countries’ perverse biofuel policies?
  • Is the failure of an international biofuels market driving countries to create policies to soak up excess crop production?

Politics and governance

  • What is the status of Indonesia’s One Map initiative and its implications for the palm oil industry? What are the prospects of disclosing boundaries and ownership of all concessions?
  • How is Indonesia’s lack of a single, all-encompassing map affecting land conflicts involving oil palm?
  • What is the Indonesian Palm Oil Association’s position on palm oil sustainability? Who are the organization’s power brokers? Who does it influence in government?
  • In the context of the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), Indonesia’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry pledged to engage the government on strengthening the policy framework for responsible palm oil and conservation. What’s happening on that front?
  • What are the implications for the palm oil industry of the dissolution of Indonesia’s REDD+ agency?
  • Is Indonesia making progress on regulations that would allow companies to conserve natural forests within their concessions? Or that would enable them to swap forest areas within concessions for non-forest areas?
  • Are any companies experiencing resistance from government figures who would rather they clear valuable forest than conserve it? How are these situations playing out?

Expansion and new geographies

  • Indonesia has seen calls to divert plantation expansion to low-carbon, degraded land. Where is expansion really going to happen in Indonesia and other countries?
  • How are the realities of oil palm expansion measuring up to rhetoric in frontiers like Africa, Latin America and Papua New Guinea?
  • What is price elasticity for expansion outside Southeast Asia?
  • How are smallholders and commercial-scale plantations innovating to boost yields? What challenges are they encountering? How is this affecting overall production?
  • How small are “smallholders.” really? To what extent are medium-scale operators driving deforestation? How is capital driving small- and medium-scale operators? What is the distribution among long-term residents, recent migrants, and absentee investors?

Legality and fiscal policy

  • How might ongoing modifications to Indonesia’s banking secrecy laws affect the palm oil industry?
  • Some have argued that Indonesia is over weighted on taxing commodities like palm oil, which is easy to tax relative to other goods and services. How does palm oil’s tax revenue profile compare to those of other agricultural commodities and the overall tax base, in Indonesia and other countries? What are the implications for smaller operators of potential relaxations of palm oil export taxes? What are implications at various levels of government?
  • What is the follow up on the audits Indonesian President Jokowi ordered on plantations in deep peat?
  • Is the broader moratorium established by Indonesian President Jokowi being enforced and respected? Have there been prosecutions? What is the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) doing?
  • How is Indonesia addressing illegal logging and non-licensed clearing for timber as it pertains to palm oil companies? Is there a meaningful link to the Timber Legality Verification System (SVLK)?
  • Are plantation developers obeying regulations that limit how far they can operate from rivers, require them to allocate part of their plantation to plasma farmers (20 percent in Indonesia), etc? How are communities and governments responding when companies break the rules?

New models

  • Are any jurisdictions providing positive models for responsible palm oil development? If so, are these replicable? What are the different approaches?
  • What are some examples of best practices of relationships between large companies and smaller operators?

Sustainability commitments

  • How is the movement to pressure big producer companies and traders to commit to zero deforestation progressing? What major producer companies and traders have yet to sign on?
  • How is the status of palm oil outside the reach of zero-deforestation policies developing? How much palm oil does this represent? Where is it traded, who are the buyers?
  • How is implementation of zero-deforestation commitments progressing? How are companies, governments, NGOs and other groups innovating to overcome obstacles such as murky supply chains that are difficult to trace?
  • Are there independent audits? What about systematic monitoring other than one-off wild-card reports from NGOs?
  • How is the industry as a whole organizing itself to respond to new demands for better standards? Is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) still relevant? How is its relationship with or status vis-a-vis the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification systems developing?
  • How are other certification systems that have risen to provide an alternative to the RSPO (e.g. the Palm Oil Innovation Group) progressing?
  • How are best practices for determining Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) evolving and proliferating?
  • How are processes for determining high-carbon stock (HCS) and high-conservation value (HCV) forests evolving?
  • Are there efforts to incorporate better wildlife protection into sustainability policies?
  • Are methods and standards for managing water levels to limit subsidence and emissions in existing plantations in peatland areas evolving? Is there any momentum to retire these plantations and restore the original hydrology of the area?

Monitoring

  • Why can’t oil palm plantations automatically be distinguished from natural forests at scale through remote sensing?
  • Why doesn’t a global oil palm map exist?

Food security

  • How are communities that depend on palm oil coping with lower prices for the commodity?
  • Are communities that depend on palm oil relying on the cash economy to secure food?
  • What crops are losing out to oil palm where already cultivated area rather than forest area is being converted?

Impacts on ecosystem services

  • How is oil palm expansion, especially on steep slopes and in peatland areas, affecting flood and drought cycles, water availability and the health of aquatic ecosystems?
  • How is oil palm affecting local air and water temperatures? Is there innovation to overcome these impacts?
  • What are oil palm’s broader impacts on biodiversity beyond direct habitat loss? Does the widespread availability of palm fruit affect species distribution and community structure? Are fragments becoming refuges for wildlife? Are natural forest areas surrounding plantations suffering from edge effects, incursions of invasive species or degradation from displacement of wildlife and movement or foraging species like pigs?
  • Regarding subsidence and flooding, are there lessons from older plantations in Malaysia?
  • Is upstream deforestation affecting plantations downstream?