October 26, 2009
"We can raise the money to replant [the corridors] and keep contributing as a subsidy in the replanting process of this corridor for connecting forests," Basiron said in response to a question on how the palm oil industry will contribute. "Money is not a problem. The commitment is already there, the pressure is already very strong for this to be done, so it's just trying to get the thing into motion."
He added: "I hope it can be done."
Oil palm seed. Palm oil is used widely in processed foods. By virtue of its high yield, palm oil is a cheaper substitute than other vegetable oils. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Despite the availability of these funds conservationists at the conference said that most organizations shied away from taking the money. Not because the funding was from the heavily-criticized palm oil industry, but because of conditions attached to the funds.
According to a brochure put out by MPOC the monies used in the fund must “[help] to portray the good image of Malaysian palm oil by providing concrete assurances that its cultivation does not cause deforestation or loss of wildlife and their habitat”.
However, peer-reviewed independent scientific studies that have shown that biodiversity drops over 80 percent when forest is exchanged for oil palm plantations and 55-59 percent of palm oil plantation between 1990 and 2009 in Malaysia occurred on forested land.
"Information obtained from these research projects will be used to convince and assure palm oil users and NGOs that Malaysian palm oil is produced sustainably with minimal or no negative impact on the environment," the statement continues, implying that researchers are expected to paint the palm oil industry positively even if their findings say otherwise.
Palm oil plantation in Malaysia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Basiron further argued that going through the palm oil industry for conservation funds would be quicker and cheaper than working with new international initiatives set-up to pay nations to keep forests standing for their carbon, such as REDD.
"If you are trying to conserve […] through the natural value of the forest, it is a slow process, it is painful process, a costly process. But the palm, provided you agree to the principle that certain land has to be set aside for commercial production and raising the revenue, then some of this revenue could be brought back to conservation."
He concluded that "[the] palm oil industry can afford to contribute to conservation".
Palm oil: good for food and the economy
While offering support to save Malaysia's orangutans, Basiron's speech to conservationists, government officials, and other palm oil executives, mostly focused on defending the industry from criticism for environmental degradation and wildlife loss, while portraying the palm oil industry as vital to the Malaysian economy and global food needs.
Orangutans in Kalimantan. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Palm oil consumption was outpacing even population growth, said Basiron, and the industry was under "pressure" to produce even more palm oil.
"We are doing a very good service, a vital service, to supply the world with an edible oil, where the world is so dependent on Malaysia and Indonesia as the only mega source of net exporters of edible oils," Basiron said. "[Palm oil], as you know, is made up of protein, carbohydrates, and oil, the three major components of food. We are the major source of world oil, edible oil."
Thirty one percent of the world's edible oil is palm oil and Malaysia is the world's largest exporter. Indonesia—the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, due to massive deforestation—is second.
"Some of you are pro-orangutan, some of us are pro-palm oil, some of us are pro-forests," Basiron told the colloquium participants. "But if we look at it in a dispassionate way then what we see is, yes, we still have to deal with the process of development."
Basiron added that the participants should not judge Malaysian wealth by the Malaysians they met at the conference. "You may see some us here looking very wealthy—but actually the Malaysian per capita income is very low compared to the Western world, and we need to develop."
Over the past couple decades palm oil has been good to Malaysia in terms of wealth: in 2008 the Malaysian palm oil industry was worth 64 billion ringgits (18 billion US dollars).
Oil palm plantations along the Kinabatangan River, an area where corridors are proposed. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.
Basiron further argued that palm oil was keeping Malaysia's economy afloat in the midst of a worldwide recession, describing Malaysians as "out there to buy like there is no tomorrow".
According to Basiron, palm oil brought a variety of benefits to society, including saving species from being hunted for food.
"We don't go hunting for animals anymore, we buy meat from the supermarket. When we were poor I can tell you that whatever moves—that is food, but now the oil palm gives you the necessary income to avoid that kind of culture where we are able to buy our regular sources of food and prevent unnecessary hunting," he said.
Several local conservationists, however, stated that workers on palm oil plantations, who are largely Indonesian and Filipino, are paid so little that they turn to the forest for meat, setting snares which have been documented to catch the Bornean rhinoceros and the Bornean pygmy elephant, both classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List.
Palm oil as 'avoided deforestation'?
"The land is a good base for development," Basiron said, "and this is where we get into conflict, how much land to develop, how much land to conserve?"
Basiron spoke of finding an 'optimal ratio' between conservation and development, painting the two as stark contrasts.
"Yes, we have to live in a world where sustainability is often very difficult to define, some of the current debates would like forests, and forests, and more forests, because that represents sustainability. But can you imagine a country where we live with a 100 percent forests? Where would we live? […] So obviously there has to be a percentage of the land that would have to be devoted to agriculture and a percentage perhaps to forests […] What is the optimal ratio? And nobody can help in this coming up with an optimal ratio. The optimal ratio is not stop what we are doing and whatever is left is 'optimal ratio' of forests. No, optimal ratio means something that we have to keep defining as we go along."
Oil palm plantation meets rainforest in Costa Rica. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
"What would happen hypothetically if we don't produce palm [oil] as we do now, if we were to replace the palm we produce with soybean?” Basiron asked.
Oil palm has the world’s highest yield of edible oil per hectare: over ten times greater than that of soybean oil. Basiron said that if there were no palm oil and soy had to fill the gap then soy bean cultivation "would require again another 4 million hectares" to produce the same amount of oil as palm oil currently produces.
While Malaysia's climate was not right for soybean production, Basiron said the additional soybean cultivation required "could happen in Brazil." Therefore, "oil palm in a way is contributing to what we call 'avoided deforestation,'" he concluded.
Allegations of double-standard
Considering the high yield of palm oil and its economic benefits, Basiron went on to suggest that developed nation had double-standards when criticizing Malaysia for deforestation due to palm oil.
"If you look at the Malaysian land use ratio of forests to agriculture you'll see the figures—it is still very healthy," Basiron said, adding that currently 56 percent of Malaysia is forested, while he pointed out that the United States forest cover is only 30 percent and Britain is 10 percent.
In terms of forested land, might there not be, he asked, "one set of standards for developed, and one set of standards for developing countries?"
Rainforest cleared for oil palm agriculture in North Sumatra. Photos by Rhett A. Butler.
Basiron responded by saying that "we are trying to explain that oil palm has not destroyed but it is an opportunity to contribute, even for reforestation".
Not everyone at the conference was happy with Basiron's speech.
"We know palm oil is a good crop and it's very good for the economy. That is known," orangutan-expert Dave Dellatore said to Basiron and the colloquium during the question and answer session following CEO's speech. "Why not just admit, okay, there are problems with palm oil, there are clear scientific articles that show […] all large bodied biodiversity of high conservation value drops. Why not just admit that? Why not try and make it better? […] No one is saying let's not use palm oil, but why not try and work together?"
Palm oil industry pledges wildlife corridors to save orangutans
(10/03/2009) In an unlikely—and perhaps tenuous—alliance, conservationists and the palm oil industry met this week to draw up plans to save Asia's last great ape, the orangutan. As if to underscore the colloquium's importance, delegates on arriving in the Malaysian State of Sabah found the capital covered in a thick and strange fog caused by the burning of rainforests and peat lands in neighboring Kalimantan. After two days of intensive meetings the colloquium adopted a resolution which included the acquisition of land for creating wildlife buffer zones of at least 100 meters along all major rivers, in addition to corridors for connecting forests. Researchers said such corridors were essential if orangutans were to have a future in Sabah.
Emotional call for palm oil industry to address environmental problems
(10/21/2009) During what was at times an emotional speech, Sabah's Minister of Tourism, Culture, and Environment, Datuk Masidi Manjun, called on the palm oil industry to stop polluting rivers and work with NGOs to save orangutans and other wildlife. He delivered the speech on the first day of an Orangutan Conservation Colloquium held in early October in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.
Sales of certified palm oil grow
(10/08/2009) Sales of palm oil certified as being produced at less cost to the environment have accelerated after a slow start, reports the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the body that developed the criteria for certification.
Palm oil both a leading threat to orangutans and a key source of jobs in Sumatra
(09/24/2009) Of the world's two species of orangutan, a great ape that shares 96 percent of man's genetic makeup, the Sumatran orangutan is considerably more endangered than its cousin in Borneo. Today there are believed to be fewer than 7,000 Sumatran orangutans in the wild, a consequence of the wildlife trade, hunting, and accelerating destruction of their native forest habitat by loggers, small-scale farmers, and agribusiness. Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra is one of the last strongholds for the species, serving as a refuge among paper pulp concessions and rubber and oil palm plantations. While orangutans are relatively well protected in areas around tourist centers, they are affected by poorly regulated interactions with tourists, which have increased the risk of disease and resulted in high mortality rates among infants near tourist centers like Bukit Lawang. Further, orangutans that range outside the park or live in remote areas or on its margins face conflicts with developers, including loggers, who may or may not know about the existence of the park, and plantation workers, who may kill any orangutans they encounter in the fields. Working to improve the fate of orangutans that find their way into plantations and unprotected community areas is the Orangutan Information Center (OIC), a local NGO that collaborates with the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS).
Britain bans palm oil ad campaign
(09/09/2009) Britain's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), a group that regulates advertisements, has again banned "misleading" ads by the palm oil industry, reports the Guardian. ASA ruled that a campaign run by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) makes dubious claims, including that palm oil is the "only product able to sustainably and efficiently meet a larger portion of the world's increasing demand for oil crop-based consumer goods, foodstuffs and biofuels." The ad said criticism over "rampant deforestation and unsound environmental practices" were part of "protectionist agendas" not based on scientific fact. ASA held the ad breached several of its advertising standards codes, including "substantiation," "truthfulness," and "environmental claims." In rebuking the MPOC, the ASA said that the merits of new eco-certification scheme promoted by the palm oil industry is "still the subject of debate" and that the ad's attacks on detractors implied that all criticisms of the palm oil industry "were without a valid or scientific basis."
World Bank's IFC suspends lending to palm oil companies
(09/09/2009) The World Bank has agreed to suspend International Finance Corporation (IFC) funding of the oil palm sector pending the development of safeguards to ensure that lending doesn't cause social or environmental harm, according to a letter by World Bank President Robert Zoellick to NGOs. A recent internal audit found that IFC funding of the Wilmar Group, a plantation developer, violated the IFC's own procedures, allowing commercial concerns to trump environmental and social standards. The findings were championed by environmental and indigenous rights' groups who have criticized World Bank support for industrial oil palm development which they say has driven large-scale destruction of forests in Indonesia, boosting greenhouse gas emissions, endangering rare and charismatic species of wildlife, including the orangutan, and displacing forest communities.
20,000 orangutans killed or poached in 10 years without a single prosecution
(08/24/2009) At least 20,000 orangutans have been killed or captured for the illegal pet trade in the past ten years in Indonesia without a single prosecution, according to a report published by Nature Alert and the Centre for Orangutan Protection, groups that campaign on behalf of orangutans.
World Bank violated environmental rules in lending to palm oil companies, finds internal audit
(08/18/2009) A coalition of indigenous rights' organizations and green groups is calling on the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC) to suspend lending to oil palm plantation developers over revelations by its own internal auditors that the loan-making entity failed to follow its own procedures for protecting against social and environmental abuses.
Cadbury dumps palm oil after consumer protests
(08/17/2009) Cadbury New Zealand, responding to widespread consumer protests, will stop adding palm oil to its milk chocolate products, reports the New Zealand Herald. The candy-maker substituted palm oil and other vegetable fat for cocoa butter earlier this year. The company cited cost savings for the decision, but the move triggered outcry from environmental groups who blame palm oil production for destruction of rainforests across Indonesia and Malaysia, key habitat for orangutans and other endangered species. Concerns that Cadbury chocolate could be imperiling orangutans led the Auckland Zoo and others to ban Cadbury products. Meanwhile consumers swamped the company with letters and petitions protesting its use of palm oil.
Issues around palm oil development prove complex, controversial
(08/12/2009) A new report from published by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) highlights the benefits — and controversies — of large-scale expansion of oil palm agriculture in Southeast Asia. The review, titled "The impacts and opportunities of oil palm in Southeast Asia: What do we know and what do we need to know?", notes that while oil palm is a highly productive and profitable crop, there are serious concerns about its environmental and social impact when established on disputed land or in place of tropical forests and peatlands.
Malaysian palm oil chief claims oil palm plantations help orangutans
(06/18/2009) Dr. Yusof Basiron, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, the government-backed marketing arm of the Malaysian palm oil industry, claims on his blog that endangered orangutans benefit from living in proximity to oil palm plantations. Environmentalists scoff at the notion, maintaining that oil palm expansion is one of the greatest threats to orangutans.