Abstract

The palm oil industry is increasingly certifying its activities as “sustainable,” “responsible,” and “conflict-free.” This trend does not represent a breakthrough toward better governance, this article argues, but primarily reflects a business strategy to channel criticism toward “unsustainable” palm oil, while promoting the value for protecting rain forests of corporate social responsibility, international trade, industrial production, and industry-guided certification. Illegalities and loopholes riddle certification in Indonesia and Malaysia, the two main sources of certified palm oil; at the same time, palm oil imports are rising in markets not demanding certification. Across the tropics, oil palm plantations linked to deforestation and human rights abuses are continuing to expand as companies navigate weak governance rules, and as sales shift across markets and inside global supply chains. Theoretically, this analysis advances the understanding of why and how the power of business is rising over the narratives and institutions of global agricultural governance.

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