The Joint Working Group on Palm Oil between the European Union and relevant ASEAN member countries met for the first time, online, on 27 January 2021.

The Joint Working Group was organised as part of a commitment reached at the 23rd ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting held on 1 December 2020, which elevated EU-ASEAN relations to a Strategic Partnership.  The meeting was opened by Indonesia’s Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr MahendraSiregar, and the European External Action Service Secretary-General, Mr Stefano Sannino.  The meeting brought together representatives from Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, the European Commission and the European External Action Service.

MahendraSiregar, Vice Minister Of Foreign Affairs Of The Republic Of Indonesia, said when presenting his keynote speech during the virtual public, “I wish to applaud the establishment of this Strategic Partnership which provides a platform to resolve the differences between our two trading blocs, as well as to provide an opportunity to exploit the synergies that exist in investment and trade between our two Regions; based on our mutual interests, mutual respect and the principles of non-interference.”

In particular, ASEAN is emerging as a powerhouse in Asia supported by not only our innovative capabilities but also a very young flexible workforce. In this respect, this partnership is not solely about what the EU can do for ASEAN, but it is also what the ASEAN can do to assist Europe. We are now equal partners and we are at the disposal of the EU to provide, for example, technical assistance on combating and controlling wildfires in the EU which have had a devastating impact in 2020 on the bio-diversity, flora and fauna in Region that the EU presides over; and has contributed negatively to achieving the sustainability goals of SDGs 2030.

With regard to the Working Group, one of, if not the foremost challenge of sustainability is how to protect the global land bank bearing in mind that demand for vegetable oils continue to increase significantly well into the future; and this challenge can only be meaningfully addressed at the level of vegetable oils in general to include the essential need to factor in productivity levels of the different oil seeds to be covered.

This is not to say that the Working Group should not focus on the challenges of sustainability of individual oil seeds, but as discussions unfold in this direction, the goals of achieving sustainability must be based on a holistic approach to the environment embracing not just deforestation but contamination of water tables and soils.

“We must avoid the cherry picking of environmental issues by adopting a nondiscriminatory holistic approach essential to achieving the UN SDGs by 2030. On that note, I welcome ASEAN member states to present the conditions and challenges faced by palm oil and coconut oil, while the EU would bring forward situations of rapeseed, soybean, sunflower, olive oils and others,” said Mahendra.

Participants engaged in open, frank and productive initial discussions on sustainable vegetable oils. In order to meet sustainability goals, including those related to the UN Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals, participants in the working group acknowledged the importance of addressing sustainability at the level of vegetable oils in general, and palm oil in particular, to address the challenges in this important sector, notably through:

  1. Establishing a dialogue on the challenges faced in sustainable vegetable oil production;
  2. Ensuring that the environmental challenges within the palm oil sector are mutually understood with a view to addressing them in a holistic, transparent and nondiscriminatory manner;
  3. Sharing relevant information on sustainable vegetable oil production and contribute towards a better mutual understanding of the sustainability criteria and the process of certification for vegetable oils, and the overarching framework provided by the Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals;
  4. Discussing and considering possible technical cooperation to underpin this process, which may include: collaboration to promote sustainability efforts and practices in the palm oil industry, especially for smallholders; and studies or research on sustainability criteria and certification of vegetable oils.

Participants agreed to continue the Joint Working Group with the next meeting in April 2021, which can be preceded by expert meetings to deepen mutual understanding on the issues at hand and discuss possible two-way cooperation.