OIL PALM: Towards environmentally sustainable and equitable palm oil

How can a more environmentally sustainable and equitable palm oil sector be promoted through socio-technical and institutional fits at multiple levels?

Palm oil production in Southeast Asia has been increasing rapidly as a result of an increase in the global demand for vegetable oils that can be used as a basis for the production of edible oil and biofuels. The increased production of palm oil has environmental and social effects. Oil palm farming is an important cause of tropical deforestation and soil erosion, and a source of greenhouse gases, air pollution and water pollution. The industrial production of palm oil in mills and transportation of products are another source of pollution. In addition, the expansion of large-scale plantations has reportedly contributed to social-political unrest at community level and sustained low productivity of smallholders as contract farmers. These effects
and the many global-local links that connect production, processing and consumption, have increasingly globalized the challenges of the palm oil sector.

Addressing these challenges and concerns proves complicated as they become visible at multiple locations and under different conditions. Particularly, the absence of formal global institutions to regulate palm oil production and trade is a severe handicap. An initiative to fill this gap was the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), established in 2004 by international private companies and NGOs. However, both the effectiveness and legitimacy of the RSPO in reducing the negative social and environmental effects are increasingly questioned.


  • To identify sustainable pathways for the production, processing and governing of palm oil by answering the specific questions.
  • To combine and develop theories on flows, networks and systems as analytical tools to unravel the complex dynamics (multiple stakeholders, multiple issues, multiple scales) of the palm oil sector.
  • To enable different stakeholders to contribute to a more environmentally sustainable and equitable palm oil sector in a science-based and concerted way.
  • To develop Wageningen UR into a world-wide centre for interdisciplinary and science-for-impact research on pathways towards environmentally sustainable and equitable palm oil chains.
  • To reflect and to stimulate reflection on sustainable pathways during all stages of the program, by linking and synthesizing findings from different PhD research projects and providing feedback to individual research projects - working in close collaboration with the programme coordinator for this purpose.

Field research

Field research activities on the entire production chain will take place in Indonesia (Kalimantan and Sumatra) and in (southern) Thailand, while the scope of theresearch will range from local to national and global level. Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil worldwide and strongly export-oriented, combining plantation and smallholder production. Thailand is a contrasting case with more modest production, primarily aimed at the domestic market and mainly produced by smallholders with clear land titles and few links to industry.

Eight PhD students will perform a multi-disciplinary research of the palm oil commodity chain, with senior researchers and a post-doc contributing to integration at program level. They will contribute to the identification of sustainable pathways for palm oil production in Indonesia and Thailand. Sustainable pathways consist of a combination of agronomic, environmental, land use planning, organizational and governance practices that together fit and generate more sustainable production and trade. These pathways include and are sustained by actors who manage access to material and immaterial flows, networks and systems and connect these at critical locations.

To identify sustainable pathways each PhD student will unravel (part of) the complexity and dynamics of the palm oil sector. For this purpose, each student will use and develop theories and concepts on complex systems, flows and networks. Through action research, organized by senior researchers with support from the Centre for Development Innovation, stakeholders will be engaged in seeking sustainable pathways. The scope of action research will differ per type and subject of PhD research. Stakeholders will primarily include smallholders but also plantation owners, processors, multinationals and investors as well as regulatory authorities, like governments and the RSPO.