“You in the West cry tears over orang-utans, but you don’t cry over the smallholder who doesn’t have money and can’t send his kids to school.”

That was the message from one palm oil grower at a meeting with European journalists in Kuching late last year.

I was one of those journalists, and his words have been playing on my mind ever since.

A bit of background: I went to Kuching (the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo) with 10 other business and consumer journalists from the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain) as part of a press trip organised and paid for by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council.

Our mission was to use our time in Malaysia to gain some first-hand experience about palm oil production and the latest sustainability initiatives for our respective readers; the Malaysian Palm Oil Council’s mission was to impress on us the message that Malaysian palm oil (including that produced in Sarawak) is an ethical, sustainable choice of raw material.  

It’s fair to say those missions didn’t always align.

In my feature for The Grocer this week, I take a closer look at just some of the challenges still facing fmcg companies when sourcing palm oil.

The key message is (inevitably) that much work remains to be done. A lot of progress has been made as far as sustainable palm is concerned – with eye-catching policies from the likes of Wilmar recently ringing in a new era of corporate engagement – but there are no perfect supply chains. As a growing number of industry players are starting to realise, a commitment to palm sustainability means a long-term commitment to tackling sustainability problems transparently rather than making such problems go away completely.

But that’s not my biggest takeaway from my time in Borneo. No, it’s the sheer level of tension that was obvious whenever Western sustainability agendas clashed with the need for local development.

The question of whether it’s acceptable to grow oil palm on peatland is a good example. Environmental NGOs and a growing number of companies say no, but the land owned by many of Sarawak’s smallholders is peatland – and many of them want to grow oil palm, which they see as their best chance of raising their living standards. “You want us to ride on bicycles, while you go home and drive BMWs,” said one grower representative at our meeting. “We want TVs and microwaves too.”

NGOs and environmental campaigners came in for particularly ferocious criticism, with concerns raised about Western arrogance and neo-colonialist attitudes as well as misinformation being disseminated through the media. “There are so many misconceptions and wrong information about palm oil,” one local government official in Sarawak told us. “All we want is a balanced reporting of the facts.”

That, of course, cuts both ways. Our group of journalists got a rather unwelcome surprise one morning during our trip when we opened the local paper to find an article about our mission to Malaysia – which included the suggestion (made by one local minister) that we had been helping the Sarawak government to compile a list of “naughty” NGOs intent on harming the reputation of palm oil in Europe.

We had, of course, done no such thing and the issue was swiftly corrected by the minister in next day’s edition. You can still read the amended article.

But it served to highlight to all of us just delicate an undertaking it is to square sustainability drives with local needs in developing countries. And, most importantly, it underscored how much more work needs to be done to build trust on all sides.