Misleading claims from a palm oil lobbyist

Commentary by Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
October 23, 2010

This letter was submitted to The New Straits Times a week ago in response to an editorial penned by Alan Oxley. The New Straits Times has not published the letter as of this time, therefore it is being posted on mongabay.com.

In an editorial published October 9th in the New Straits Times ("Why does World Bank hate palm oil?"), Alan Oxley, a former Australian diplomat who now serves as a lobbyist for logging and plantation companies, makes erroneous claims in his case against the World Bank and the International Finance Corp (IFC) for establishing stronger social and environmental criteria for lending to palm oil companies. It is important to put Mr. Oxley's editorial in the context of his broader efforts to reduce protections for rural communities and the environment.

In his editorial, Oxley mischaracterizes the IFC's audit process; confuses World Bank's policy-making bodies; and cites the wrong group leading the complaints to the IFC. Oxley portrays the Bank's multistakeholder process for devising a strategy to resume lending to palm oil companies as elevating "the green interests, mostly based in wealthy countries, over the bank's core mission of reducing poverty" when in fact the majority of those signing on to the complaints and inputs to the World Bank are local indigenous peoples, smallholders groups and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Forest clearing for oil palm in Central Sarawak.

Forest clearing for oil palm near Tanjung Puting in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Courtesy of Google Earth
Oxley claims to campaign on behalf of ending poverty, yet the World Bank issue centers around the land rights of poor rural communities being violated by a large palm oil company. If Oxley is sincere about the plight of the poor, why is he siding with some of the world's most criticized logging and plantation companies?

The answer is simple, Oxley's "anti-poverty" platform is little more than campaign on behalf of big forestry companies to reduce regulation, including social and environmental protections, in an industry that has demonstrated a need for safeguards (e.g. this month's Rajang logjam). While many companies--including Wilmar, which is at the center of the IFC complaint--are moving toward more responsible policies that better ensure the long-term viability of their industry and the health of the environment, there remain holdouts that would rather mislead the public than substantively improve operations. That's where Mr. Oxley comes in with his Washington D.C.-based World Growth International and his marketing firm ITS Global.

Expansion of palm oil production has generated considerable income in Malaysia and Indonesia, but in some places has exacerbated social conflict.
Oxley is quick to attack anyone who criticizes any of his corporate clients as rabid environmentalists with an anti-development agenda. Lately he's been particularly active on behalf of Sinar Mas holding companies, which have been under pressure from NGOs for conflict with communities and deforestation in Sumatra and Kalimantan. In this effort, Oxley has recently published several press releases, reports (sometimes presented as "independent" audits), and editorials that contain distortion and outright corruption of fact. Oxley had made false claims about the underlying drivers of deforestation, the environmental performance of palm oil, the groups that are working to improve the well-being of the rural poor, and commodity-certification initiatives. He has even used language to imply that Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner for her tree-planting campaign in Africa, supports the large-scale conversion of tropical forests for industrial plantations. Maathai has not voiced support for such activities, which are against the spirit of her community-based Greenbelt Movement, and does not support World Growth International.

These distortions and misrepresentations undermine the long-term health and goodwill of the very industries that are paying Oxley. These corporations can have a central role in the wise use and stewardship of natural resources and it is a shame Mr. Oxley attempts to obstruct this positive role through his campaign.

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Commentary by Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com (October 23, 2010).

Misleading claims from a palm oil lobbyist.