Destruction of rainforest for an oil palm plantation in Malaysia
President Obama elevated the issue of destruction of rainforests for palm oil production during his brief visit to Malaysia last week.
“In Indonesia and Malaysia, what you’ve seen is huge portions of tropical forests … being shredded because of primarily the palm oil industry,” he said during a speech at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Obama went on to say that if the world wants to address climate change, countries need to embrace less damaging ways to grow their economies.
Now, the question is are we going to in each of those countries say how can we help preserve these forests while using a different approach to economic development that does less to damage the atmosphere? And that means engaging then with the various stakeholders. You’ve got to talk to the businesses involved. You’ve got to talk to the government, the communities who may be getting jobs — because their first priority is feeding themselves, so if you just say, we’ve got to stop cutting down the forests, but you don’t have an alternative opportunity for people then they may just ignore you. So there are going to be all kinds of pieces just to that one part of the problem. And each country may have a different element to it.
The point, though, is that you have to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. You have to say, this is important. You don’t have to be a climate science expert, but you can educate yourselves on the issue. You can discuss it with your peer groups. You can organize young people to interact with international organizations that are already dealing with this issue. You can help to publicize it. You can educate your parents, friends, coworkers. And through that process, you can potentially change policy.
Palm oil production is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia, with more than 3.5 million hectares of forest chopped down for plantations over the past 20 years. Expansion is occurring so rapidly that biologists have called the crop the single largest threat to wildlife in the region.
But there are signs that some key players in the industry may be looking to change that. Since 2011, two of the world’s largest palm oil companies have made zero deforestation commitments that aim to eliminate rainforest and peatlands conversion from their supply chains, while improving labor conditions and engaging local communities in new plantation development. A raft of major palm oil buyers, ranging from Nestle to Unilever to Proctor & Gamble, have also adopted similar safeguards that will potentially reward companies that supply deforestation and conflict-free palm oil.
Yet some palm oil interests have been digging in, resisting pressure to improve the social and environmental impact of the industry. For example, officials in the Malaysian state of Sarawak have signaled that they plan to continue on with the plan to convert a million hectares of native customary rights land — much of which is forested peatland. Others have stepped up the rhetoric, calling zero deforestation pacts a Western effort to discriminate against the palm oil industry and dismissing Obama’s speech as a “snippet White House talking point prepared by left-wing, latte-sipping environmentalists.”
“Many non-Malaysian actors have attempted to manipulate the country’s palm oil industry – and therefore its national interests – for political and financial gain,” wrote Yusof Basiron, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, an industry body, in a op-ed published Friday. “President Obama should not join this chorus.”
But Malaysian NGO’s have countered Basiron, arguing that the time has come for the Malaysian palm oil to move toward sustainability.
“MPONGOC’s view is that buyers of palm oil, and products containing palm oil globally, will increasingly demand evidence of high social and environmental standards,” said the Malaysian Palm Oil NGO Coalition, in a statement released last month prior to Obama’s visit. “This view is not just acceding to extreme western demands, but realization that the boundaries between western and Asian markets will become less sharp, and that people globally will want to see more equal emphasis given to social, environmental and economic elements of all commodity production.”
(04/17/2014) The Malaysian state should play a more active role in supporting the transition toward less environmentally destructive palm oil production, says a coalition of Malaysian NGO’s. In a statement issued Sunday, the Malaysian Palm Oil NGO Coalition (MPONGOC) urged Malaysian banks, palm oil associations, and other government-backed institutions to commit to ‘improving social and environmental standards in the palm oil industry’.
(02/17/2014) Palm oil giant Wilmar has refuted a claim that it will stop buying crude palm oil from the Malaysian state of Sarawak due to its new ‘no deforestation’ policy.
(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.