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Malaysia calls on Southeast Asia to back palm oil against ‘unfair’ claims

Oil palm plantation in the process of being replanted. Image by Rhett A. Butler

  • The Malaysian government has called for support from fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to support the region’s palm oil industry in the wake of a European Union policy to stop recognizing the commodity as a biofuel.
  • Malaysia and fellow ASEAN member Indonesia supply more than 80 percent of the world’s palm oil, while Singapore, another ASEAN state, is home to some of the world’s biggest palm oil companies and the banks that finance the industry.
  • Malaysia’s minister of primary industries, Teresa Kok, says there’s a global campaign to portray the production of palm oil as exceptionally destructive, which she calls “extremely provocative and belittling.”
  • While both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have instated policies to curb the clearing of rainforest for palm plantations, there still remain challenges to ensuring sustainability across the wider industry, environmental activists say.

SINGAPORE — The Malaysian government has called on its neighbors to help defend the palm oil industry against what it deems a discriminative campaign by the European Union to stop recognizing the commodity as a biofuel ingredient.

Teresa Kok, Malaysia’s minister of primary industries, said this past week that member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), should support one another against outside threats to an industry as important to the region as palm oil. Malaysia is the world’s second-biggest producer of palm oil, behind Indonesia; together, the two countries supply more than 80 percent of the world’s palm oil, a commodity used in items ranging from toothpaste and coffee creamer, to cookies and biodiesel.

“If the EU countries can stand united on assumptions of unsustainable production and consumption of palm oil and other forest based products, we as ASEAN should stand tall to fight against those unfair and discriminative judgments made by them,” Kok said in her May 2 speech at the Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources.

Her statement marks the latest backlash by Malaysian and Indonesian officials against the European Union’s move to curb the use of crops that cause deforestation in transportation fuel, over concerns that their production contributes to global carbon emissions. The European Commission in March approved a measure to phase out palm oil-based biofuel by 2030.

Teresa Kok, the Malaysian minister of primary industries, speaking during the sixth Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources. Image by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

‘Maniac with a chainsaw’

Kok said palm oil had been unfairly targeted by a global network of campaigns that she called “extremely provocative and belittling” to producing countries like Malaysia.

“There is relentless accusation of deforestation, wildlife destruction, social injustices to the plantation workforce, and stigmatization against palm oil from its nutrition and health perspectives,” she said.

“If you are a palm oil producer you must be a maniac running around with a chainsaw and cutting 50 football field equivalents of forests each day,” she added. “Such narratives are common, and yet intellectuals, perhaps even in this room, believe such absurdities.”

Kok said the Malaysian government had undertaken efforts to improve the sustainability of its palm oil industry and address concerns such as deforestation. A widely cited figure from WWF suggests that 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour to make way for palm plantations. But Kok said Malaysia had been able to retain about 54.8 percent of its total land area under forest cover in 2017.

“The world often finds this difficult to assimilate,” she said.

Kok also cited other recent initiatives, such as the government’s decision to cap the expansion of oil palm plantations at 65,000 square kilometers (25,000 square miles) by 2023; the current planted area stands at 58,500 square kilometers (22,600 square miles).

“Our focus now is in utilizing higher-yielding planting materials and increasing productivity without the need to expand into new forests or peatlands,” Kok said. “This means we can progressively achieve oil yields from the current 4 metric tons per hectare, which is already four to 10 times higher than all other oilseeds, to at least 6 to 8 metric tons per hectare.”

She also cited a prohibition on cultivating on peatland, and the tightening of regulations on existing plantations on peat.

“Besides that we are also planning to carry out mapping of oil palm plantations throughout the country for public access to enhance transparency,” she said.

Kok added Malaysia had introduced its own sustainability certification scheme, Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO), with a goal to certify all plantations and mills by the end of 2019.

An oil palm plantation in Malaysia. Agribusiness, with its conversion of forests to croplands ¬(including oil palm, soy, cotton, corn, sugarcane and rubber crops to feed global markets) is a major contributor to climate change and to changes in tropical rainfall patterns. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

‘Boycotting is not effective’

Despite her call for regional support, the Malaysian minister made of point of criticizing dialogue host Singapore over what she called its “active anti-palm agenda.” She didn’t elaborate on specific policies, but cited the case of Singapore Zoo, which she suggested was engaged in a public education campaign to vilify palm oil.

“The Singapore Zoo has on several occasions created sensationalized displays on palm oil and deforestation at its orangutan enclosures,” Kok said. “These damage the image of palm oil-producing countries within this region despite progressive efforts toward sustainability and wildlife conservation. In this case, Singapore Zoo acted possibly in haste and reflecting emotions expressed by many ill-informed visitors.”

She also criticized the zoo for failing to acknowledge Malaysia’s efforts in protecting its wildlife.

“We have also contributed funds for wildlife conservation in Sabah [state] to protect iconic species such as the orangutan, Borneo pygmy elephants, sun bears and others,” she said. “I think the curators at the Singapore Zoo should take note of such efforts before you put up anti-palm oil signage.”

Singapore is home to the headquarters of some of the world’s biggest palm oil companies and its banks are financing the expansion of the industry in Malaysia and Indonesia as well as further afield.

In response to Kok’s criticism, Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), the organization that runs Singapore Zoo, said it wasn’t advocating for a boycott of palm oil products through its signage, but rather for the sustainable production of the commodity. WRS also noted that it was an active member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the world’s leading certification body for ethically sourced palm oil.

“We recognize that palm oil is the highest-yielding source of vegetable oil and the palm oil industry creates stable employment for many people across the region,” Mike Barclay, chief executive of Mandai Park Holdings, WRS’s parent entity, told Mongabay. “Given the efficiency of palm oil production and its ubiquitous use, WRS believes that boycotting of the palm oil industry is not effective.”

He added that WRS would continue working to raise awareness about conversation issues among the zoo’s visitors, as part of its mission of educating the public.

A Bornean orangutan in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. The endangered species, the ape is threatened by the unbridled expansion of oil palm plantations into their forest homes. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Sustainability standards and deforestation

While both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have instated policies to curb the clearing of rainforest for palm plantations, there still remain challenges to ensuring sustainability across the wider industry, environmental activists say.

Kiki Taufik, the head of Greenpeace Indonesia’s forest campaign, said much work still needed to be done toward developing a globally recognized sustainability certification scheme. Indonesia and Malaysia have their own schemes, called ISPO and MSPO, respectively, but both are widely regarded to be less stringent than the RSPO. (The RSPO, in turn, has long attracted criticism of its own failings, including the lack of meaningful disincentives for member companies that routinely flout its standards.) A 2017 report by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), an international NGO, put MSPO and ISPO at the bottom of the list of certification schemes for edible oils and biofuels.

Kiki said he fully agreed with Kok that ASEAN countries should unite — but not to retaliate against the EU, which he said wouldn’t solve anything.

“Countries like Malaysia and Indonesia indeed need to band together to improve forest and peat management, and that includes the palm oil sector,” Kiki told Mongabay on the sidelines of the Singapore dialogue, “so that they can create a system that gains the full trust of other countries.”

Even so, forest loss remains a major problem, said Nigel Sizer, chief program officer of the Rainforest Alliance.

He cited recent tropical deforestation data released by the World Resources Institute (WRI) that showed the planet lost another 36,400 square kilometers (14,000 square miles) of primary rainforest in 2018, a jump from the annual average and the third-highest level since 2002.

While the report singled out Indonesia as a bright spot, after it experienced the biggest decline in its deforestation rate, the country still lost 3,400 square kilometers (1,300 square miles) of its forest in 2018; Malaysia lost 1,445 square kilometers (560 square miles).

“The challenge continues to be huge,” Sizer said at the dialogue. “Indonesia, despite the tremendous progress we’ve seen in the last few years, is still number three in the loss of primary tropical rainforest in the world. Malaysia’s number six in the world in terms of loss of primary rainforest.”


Banner image: Oil palm plantation in the process of being replanted. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.