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Malaysian palm oil companies say their concession maps are state secrets

An oil palm canopy in Indonesia, the world's top producer. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • In the name of transparency, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil agreed in 2013 to release the concession maps of its grower members.
  • Companies in Indonesia and Malaysia, the largest palm oil-producing countries, have resisted the dictum for various reasons, and the maps remain unpublished.
  • NGOs want the maps so they can better monitor companies’ operations, which are often linked to deforestation, social conflict and wildfires in tropical countries.

In the war on opaque management of Southeast Asia’s natural resources, reformers gained ground on Tuesday, when Indonesia’s land minister affirmed the right of oil palm companies to publish their own concession maps. Doing so would violate no law, Ferry Mursyidan Baldan said in an official letter to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the world’s largest association for ethical production of the commodity. The pronouncement came two-and-a-half years after the RSPO committed to sharing the maps of its grower members, a resolution that Indonesian and Malaysian firms have resisted due to what they have portrayed as uncertainty over whether publishing the information is legal.

If transparency advocates were excited by this latest development, the companies’ reaction might give them pause. Edi Suhardi, chairman of the RSPO’s Indonesian Growers Caucus, said his side remained unconvinced the maps could be released without running afoul of the law. He pointed to a different letter issued a year ago by the agriculture ministry’s plantations chief, Gamal Nasir, which stated that the intended disclosures were illegal. Unless that dictum were expressly revoked or superseded, Suhardi told Mongabay on Wednesday, the growers could not condone publication.

Even that would not be enough. Last December, when the RSPO, having deemed Gamal Nasir’s objection absent of any legal weight, announced it would proceed with publication, it allowed an exemption for Malaysia, where the legality of sharing maps “continues to be ambiguous within the laws of the country.” That the same did not apply to Indonesia was a “double standard” to which the archipelago’s growers could not abide, Suhardi maintained. Until an “equal commitment” from all growers was secured, his side would “maintain the status quo.”

Indonesia (green) and Malaysia (orange). Image by Gunkarta/Wikimedia Commons
Indonesia (green) and Malaysia (orange). Image by Gunkarta/Wikimedia Commons

Like their Indonesian counterparts, the Malaysian growers claim they want to share their maps but can’t because doing so would break the law. Exactly how remains an open question. Some in Malaysia point to the Official Secrets Act of 1972; Roy Lim Kiam Chye, sustainability director of palm oil giant Kuala Lumpur Kepong, said companies were “bound by the [act] and not allowed to release such maps publicly unless with cabinet approval.” Carl Bek-Nielsen, CEO of United Plantations, agreed: “Malaysian law is above the RSPO and the law currently does not allow these maps to be released in the public domain.”

That is a contentious position. Balu Perumal, head of conservation at the Malaysian Nature Society, insisted that the Official Secrets Act was about government documents and security areas and had “nothing to do with plantations.” Longtime activist and forestry expert Lim Teck Wyn concurred that “the boundaries of private land certainly do not come under control of that act. I see absolutely no legal obstacle with private companies publishing maps of their own holdings.” Andrew Ng, a founder of the consultancy Grassroots, piled on. “If you look properly, something doesn’t add up since it is obviously not cut-and-dry that maps are state secrets, but is being touted as such by Malaysian RSPO producer members,” he said. “Why the reticence? Why the opacity?”

A landscape of oil palm in Malaysia, the world's second-largest palm oil producer after Indonesia.
A landscape of oil palm in Malaysia, the world’s second-largest palm oil producer after Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

Back in 2013, it was in the name of transparency that the RSPO’s members, which also include palm oil refiners, retailers, banks and NGOs, voted to publish its growers’ concession maps. But some companies have fretted that doing so might bring more harm than good. Suhardi, who also works for PT Agro Harapan Lestari, said it could expose growers to extortion by local saboteurs and fraudulent indigenous groups, who might block a key road for ransom or stake a false land claim in order to extract compensation. “They will bring in the police, bring in NGOs, and in the end the company has to suffer and pay,” he explained.

Were those legitimate concerns? “Potentially, yes,” said Eric Wakker, Asia-Pacific director of the consultancy Aidenvironment. “But then again, I think what they’re afraid of is that someone like Greenpeace or Aidenvironment will use the maps to verify their compliance.” Compliance with the RSPO’s sustainability criteria, which ban the destruction of ecologically and socially important areas like virgin forests and gravesites, and with the laws of Indonesia and Malaysia, which prohibit land clearing outside of a company’s concession boundaries — rules commonly violated by roundtable members.

Oil palm fruit in Indonesia. Palm oil is used in everything from detergents and cosmetics to breakfast cereals and ice cream. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay
Oil palm fruit in Indonesia. Palm oil is used in everything from detergents and cosmetics to breakfast cereals and ice cream. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

Taken at face value, the argument that plantation maps are a Malaysian state secret is undermined, advocates say, by the fact that civil society can already obtain many forms of spatial data. Land ownership maps are available to the public for a small fee, confirmed Adrian Yeo, who works with the environment office of Malaysia’s Selangor state. One can also apply for and access topographic maps for the whole country, according to Grassroots’ Ng. Google has permission to display public roads on its Street View application. “It is a known fact to the Malaysian government that NGOs make use of Google Maps APIs for their conservation work here,” the tech giant’s Zeffri Yusof said, referring to the interfaces Google provides for third parties to build their own applications. “So far so good.”

A close reading of the Official Secrets Act suggests that the only way publishing one’s own concession maps could be prohibited is if a minister specifically classified the maps as confidential. It is unclear whether that has happened. No Malaysian official appears to have publicly addressed the issue. Douglas Uggah Embas, the minister of plantation industries and commodities, did not return messages to his phone. “There are no publicly available announcements that sharing maps is illegal from Malaysia, although there have been communications within industry groups,” said Stefano Savi, the RSPO’s outreach coordinator. “We are now planning to work with our members to draft and submit a cabinet paper in order to formally obtain the views of the Malaysian government on this issue,” he added.

Until that process is carried through to completion, the Indonesian Growers Caucus has pledged continued resistance. Last month, the caucus made plans to introduce a resolution at the RSPO’s next general assembly to protest the “conduct” of the RSPO’s Secretariat, since the Kuala Lumpur-based administrative body had striven to secure the endorsement of the government in Indonesia, but not in Malaysia. The assembly is scheduled for November or December. It will be the third such event since the roundtable promised in 2013 to publish the maps.

Follow Philip Jacobson on Twitter: @philjacobius

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