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Malaysian palm oil chief misleads on deforestation

Forest conversion for oil palm plantations in Malaysian Borneo in 2012.
Forest conversion for oil palm plantations in Malaysian Borneo in 2012.

One of Malaysia’s top palm oil officials has once again misled the public on the state of forests in Malaysia.

Speaking at a recent conference on palm oil sustainability in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Palm Oil Council CEO Yusof Basiron asserted that 80 percent of Sarawak’s forests are “still undeveloped”, indicating “there’s no issue of deforestation”, as reported by the Malaysian Star.

Basiron’s remark is undercut by recent scientific papers showing that less than 20 percent of Sarawak is covered by intact forest. Most of Sarawak’s remaining forests have been heavily logged, while nearly 500,000 hectares of forest was converted to oil palm plantations between 1990 and 2010, according to a 2013 study. The state, which currently has more than a million hectares of oil palm, aims to covert nearly a million hectares of land for palm estates by the end of the decade. Native customary rights land is targeted for much of that expansion.

Chart showing forest loss in Borneo between 1973-2010.

Basiron has gained notoriety in recent years for making misleading claims about the environmental credentials of the palm oil industry, including asserting that palm oil has not resulted in forest conversion in Malaysia. In 2009, Basiron claimed that orangutans benefit from living in proximity to oil palm plantations by feeding on palm fruit that gives them “a healthy shining coat.” Conservationists scoffed at the statement, noting that orangutans are commonly killed as pests in and around plantations, while oil palm expansion is one of the gravest threats to the wildlife in Borneo and Sumatra.

Basiron has also regularly criticized efforts to clean up the palm oil industry, hitting out at sustainability commitments and zero deforestation pledges by some of the world’s largest palm oil buyers and producers. These measures have come in response to concerns about habitat loss and greenhouse gas emissions from forest conversion for plantations.

Environmentalists have been campaigning to push new oil palm development to non-forest lands, like heavily degraded scrub areas and non-native grasslands. Given oil palm’s high yield and widespread use as a cooking oil, conversion of non-forest lands for plantations is often viewed as a key strategy for boosting vegetable oil production worldwide.

Beyond Basiron’s remarks, the sustainability conference highlighted efforts to reduce environmental impacts of palm oil production, including methane capture, reduced fertilizer and pesticide use, and maintaining corridors of natural forest along rivers and streams. .

Forest (dark green) and non-forest (white) in year 1973, and residual clouds (cyan) in Panel A. Areas of forest loss during 1973–2010 (red) in Panel B. Primary logging roads from 1973–2010 (yellow lines) in Panel C. Remaining intact forest (dark green), remaining logged forest (light green), and industrial oil palm and timber plantations (Black) in year 2010 in Panel D. Map and caption courtesy of Gaveau et al 2014..

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