I’m just back from Gabon and Liberia – first time I’ve ever been in these countries. I was there to understand better what the idea of ‘sustainable palm oil’ might mean in that part of the world, and came away both excited at the potential for both countries, and even more uneasy with the absolutism of today’s ‘zero deforestation’ campaign than I was before I went.

The two countries are different but share many similarities. Gabon is considerably better off than Liberia, primarily because of the (still limited) wealth that it’s enjoyed from its oil industry. But both countries are still poor.

And both are hoping that the oil palm (which originated in West Africa, and has been in widespread use across the region going back a very long time), will play a big part in helping to address that chronic poverty. Which will inevitably entail some conversion of their forests into oil palm.

Gabon is the second most heavily forested country in the world – with around 88% of its land still in forest, either protected in a network of national parks or under active management by timber companies. Forestry is the third largest contributor to the economy (which has been growing by a healthy five to six per cent for the last few years), with significant areas under FSC certification.

But there’s a timely realisation in Gabon that revenues from oil will soon start declining. This has prompted the President to commit to an ambitious plan for agricultural diversification (Gabon grows hardly any of its own food at the moment) currently estimated at around one million hectares. Around 120,000 hectares are currently earmarked for oil palm cultivation.

Currently, the biggest foreign investor in Gabon’s palm oil sector, in terms of both money invested and land area planted, is Singapore-based Olam International. In 2010, Olam entered into a joint venture with the Gabonese Government to develop an initial 50,000 hectares of oil palm plantations.

Olam’s operations in Gabon are providing the principal case study for our High Carbon Stock Science Study – and that’s why we were there. It’s an impressive operation, in every respect, and the areas in which it’s operating stand to benefit substantially from Olam’s investment.

Some of the concession areas are in forested land, some on savannah grasslands. Planting on those grasslands obviously means lower emissions of CO2 – in fact, the oil palms will sequester more carbon than is locked up in the current biomass on the savannah. But there’s a trade-off: these grasslands are less fertile, yielding less palm oil per hectare, and therefore requiring more fertiliser.

So a small percentage of Gabon’s forest will indeed by ‘destroyed’ (albeit the least valuable forest, according to the surveys that have been done) to support this part of the country’s diversification strategy. But in return, Olam is not only investing heavily in all the local communities in those areas, but has undertaken to protect the remaining high conservation forests across its concessions.

And that’s crucial. One of the biggest problems today is not just outright deforestation, but continuing degradation – from shifting agriculture, encroachment by nearby villages, illegal logging and hunting. And the only way to reduce degradation of that kind is through active management, which many poor countries simply cannot afford to undertake for themselves.

So much for Gabon. It’s a slightly different story in Liberia, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, still ravaged by the consequences of a 15-year civil war, with levels of unemployment in excess of 80%. And if that wasn’t tough enough, the recent outbreak of Ebola has knocked them very hard indeed.

Unfortunately for Liberia, there are not that many options for its economy – apart from its natural resources in mining, forestry, rubber and oil palm. And it is rubber and oil palm that generate the greatest number of jobs in terms of different levels of investment.

There are currently three major oil palm countries who’ve been granted concessions by the Liberian Government – including Sime Darby, which is Forum for the Future’s principal partner in the oil palm industry. Expectations run very high in terms of the number of jobs that will result from these investments – so far, for instance, Sime Darby has planted up to 10,000 hectares, creating more than 2,000 jobs in the process, and there’s already a demonstrable uplift in economic activity in all of the oil palm growing areas.

Liberia has also retained a significant percentage of its forest (around 45%), although most of it has been logged over in the past or is subject to degradation of one kind or another. But the areas designated for oil palm are mostly heavily forested, and in the event of a ‘zero deforestation’ commitment being imposed upon them in Liberia, there would be very little if any further oil palm development.

And for me, personally, that would be deeply immoral. I felt that pretty strongly before I visited Liberia; I came away feeling it even more strongly. As Co-Chair of the High Carbon Stock Steering Committee, advocating an approach that would rule out a very significant proportion (but by no means all) of Liberia’s forests for oil palm development, I was already anticipating some robust push-back from the Government Ministers, Senators and communities that had been lined up for me to meet.

Even so, forewarned as I was, the full force of their anger and disbelief was compelling. And as I sat there, not just sympathising but finding myself in whole-hearted agreement, I kept thinking to myself: “So how would all those arguing so strenuously for ‘zero deforestation’ be handling this?”

I have no reason to believe that they’re any less concerned about the fate of the world’s poorest people than I am. But their uncompromising advocacy of the zero deforestation position leaves no room for manoeuvre – even in a country like Liberia, still heavily forested in comparison to the UK and practically every other EU country, and now, it seems, forever chronically poor.

The High Carbon Stock Steering Committee has reached out on a number of occasions to the zero deforestation NGOs, most of which are involved in a parallel initiative (confusingly called the HCS Approach). But so far there’s been very little serious dialogue.

I’m sorry, but this just can’t be right. There has to be some compromise in countries like Liberia and Gabon, along the lines of ‘zero net deforestation’, as promoted by the Consumer Goods Forum, or ‘no net loss’, or even ‘net positive’ in a broader sustainable development framework. Or possibly even ‘carbon neutral’. But all these more nuanced, balanced alternatives are losing out under the fierce, threatening glare of the zero brigade.

So what does that mean in countries like Liberia and Gabon? If the responsible companies, RSPO members, can’t make it work, then the more unscrupulous, unlisted companies (including new players from China) will move in and trash both the forest and the interests of local communities. In effect, it means that the whole idea of equitable, sustainable development will simply shrivel away as some kind of crude carbon colonialism comes to hold sway over the lives of people so poor that most of those reading this blog wouldn’t even be able to imagine it.

So my plea, at this rather critical stage in our respective initiatives, is a simple one: let’s start talking seriously about the shape of that kind of compromise before positions become so entrenched that there’s no possible meeting of minds further down the road.

And let’s surprise a world that has become very cynical about the whole idea of ‘the common good’ by demonstrating that those who care passionately about social injustice, and those who care passionately about climate change, really can navigate their way through this horrendously complex moral dilemma.

If we can’t, the people who have most to lose are those on the front line of both those horror stories.