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Malaysian NGOs form alliance to address palm oil concerns

Seven Malaysia-based NGO’s have banded together to form an alliance to provide a Malaysian civil society perspective on social and environmental issues related to palm oil production. The initiative aims in part to counter Malaysian industry claims that concerns over palm oil are purely driven by Western NGO’s.

The alliance, called the Malaysian Palm Oil NGO Coalition (MPONGOC), currently includes the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia (JOAS), Land Empowerment Animals People, (LEAP), Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Sabah branch, Partners of Community Organisations (PACOS) Trust and WWF Malaysia, according to a statement issued by the group.

“MPONGOC aims to influence land use policy and decision making, and is also working towards advocating consumer responsibility,” said the group. “Strengthening implementation of best environmental management practices including enforcement of pollution regulations, building capacity for smallholder verification and best practices, supporting community-based organizations largely made up of indigenous people to engage with the industry on their own terms, and mainstreaming awareness on human wildlife conflict are other objectives.”

Conversion of rainforest for oil palm plantations in Malaysian Borneo

The move is significant because much of the dialog around social and environmental issues related to palm oil production is shaped by international NGO’s, most of which are based in Western Europe or the United States. Therefore it has been relatively easy for the palm oil industry to brush off criticism by claiming that it simply represents a new form of colonialism, whereby Western nations use NGO’s as a proxy to protect domestic soy, corn, and rapeseed producers. The Malaysian palm oil industry has spent millions of dollars on marketing and public relations since 2007 attempting to advance that message.

Now that messaging will be undercut by local NGO’s expressing their own viewpoints on issues like deforestation, pollution, and land-grabbing. Some of those views may not necessarily match up with those of international NGO’s. To start, MPONGOC says it will “engage in constructive and on-going dialogue with the industry via the Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA), Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC)”, industry groups that have had limited direct engagement with Western NGOs.

Clearing of natural forest for oil palm plantations in Malaysian Borneo

MPONGOC says it will also engage with international NGO’s, which could help bridge the gap in understanding between Western activist groups — some of which call for measures, like banning palm oil imports, that play directly into industry messaging — and Malaysian palm oil producers.

“We intend to engage with all parties, bring our collective voice, leadership, skills and experience to the table to deepen and expand dialogue between civil society, industry and government in the vital conversation of sustainability for all,” said LEAP Executive Director Cynthia Ong in a statement.

“We see MPONGOC as being able to offer solutions by involving all stakeholders,” added PACOS Trust Executive Director Anne Lasimbang, noting that some of the most vulnerable people — indigenous communities — have been largely ignored in the debate over palm oil.

WWF-Malaysia Executive Director Dionysius Sharma said that the initiative could help provide a path toward more sustainable palm oil production.

“We hope that through MPONGOC, the industry, regulators, financiers, buyers and other stakeholders could work collectively to develop and promote the adoption of environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable practices in the oil palm industry,” he said.

Orangutans have become a symbol for concerns about uncontrolled expansion of oil palm plantations into native forests.

Palm oil is the highest-yielding source of vegetable oil grown on a commercial basis. But the industry’s expansion in recent decades has been a major driver of deforestation across Malaysia and Indonesia. Biologists have thus called the crop the “single most immediate threat to the greatest number of species”.

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