NGOs Got It Wrong: Oil Palm Reduces Deforestation
When the east, mid-west and southern agricultural states of the USA were cleared of their forests for European settlers to build farms, each family was given 5 acres of forested land to convert into farmland. Within a few decades of land grab rush, the forests were gone. A law was even passed to send Native Americans to be re-settled in Special Reserves so that the farm land developments would not be interrupted. The army was asked to accompany the Native Americans to travel thousands of miles to reach their reservations and many perished along the way. The European farmers and the country subsequently prospered and became developed. Farms generated multiple times the revenue as compared to conserving the land as forests. This mass scale conversion of forest into farmlands was necessary for the country to be developed.
Similar developments occurred in New Zealand where European farmers decimated the original indigenous forests within one generation of settling. Miles upon miles of farm land were then created and New Zealand became a developed country. The story can be repeated for the loss of forests in Australia and Canada to farm developments. None of the NGOs currently campaigning against deforestation occurring in developing countries want to mention the successful formula employed by these developed countries in achieving their current fortune of being a developed country.
We do not condone the treatment of indigenous populations that were displaced in these countries – economic development achieved by those means is immoral. But recognizing the source of their prosperity, developing countries are seeking to emulate this prosperity through development that benefits all humanely.
Developing countries are aware of the formula for transformation to a developed country. The approach is to convert low income yielding forest land into high income agricultural farms. Unfortunately, efforts by these countries to become developed are being resisted by the Western NGOs who want forests to be left undeveloped. Such opposition is futile. Without development people will remain poor and will continue to plunder natural resources, including illegally cutting away forest to earn an income. For developing countries, deforestation will be worsened where there is no development to overcome poverty.
The NGOs who are based in developed countries such as the USA, Australia and EU must now clearly state their priorities and intentions. Are they saying that developing countries cannot follow the practice and standards set in developed countries? Are they not allowed to use part of their forest for farm development and only maintain a minimal 11 to 33 % of the country areas as permanent forests as practiced in the developed countries? No country can reach developed status without resorting to farming and other land applications by converting a major part of their original forest areas, unless the country has other resources such as oil. Even natural resource wealth cannot sufficiently replace the prosperity achieved through agriculture – the result of what some call “the resource curse”.
Planting oil palm may provide the solution to overcoming deforestation in some developing countries with the right climatic condition for the crop. Oil palm cultivation actually saves land from deforestation in two ways. First, by generating 30 times more revenue compared to forests, oil palm can earn enough income to satisfy the financial needs of the farmers, plantation owners or state governments so that the excess revenue can help more forests to remain undisturbed or become rehabilitated. The state of Sabah in Malaysia for example, has been able to reduce logging and allow its forest to regenerate because the sales tax income from the oil palm industry brings more revenue compared to the export tax collected from timber. In this way, Sabah can have up to 50 % of its land area conserved as forest while only using less than 15 % of its area for agriculture with oil palm planted as a major crop.
Secondly, most countries import palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia to supplement local shortages. If they were to produce their own oilseeds, ten times more land would be required to grow such crops compared to the land used to produce the imported palm oil. Since the world imported about 40 million tonnes of palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia, some 80 million hectares equivalent of forests have been saved from deforestation to grow soyabean if palm oil imports were to be replaced with locally grown or imported soyabean oil. The total land used to produce palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia is only 13 million hectares, less than 0.3% of the world total agricultural land area, or about 5% of oil seeds crop planted area.
It is also wrong for western NGOs to keep harping on the carbon emission from deforestation as developing countries have developed only a small area of their agriculture land to grow oil palm. Developing countries would also like to move towards achieving a developed country status. If a country like USA were to remain highly forested and prioritize biodiversity over economic development, their GDP would not exceed US$47,000 per capita that it enjoys today. The same can be said for any tropical country. Yet, it has been shown repeatedly that oil palm plantations behave as forests by sequestering more CO2 than the original forest. This is because oil palm is itself a super productive (photosynthesis-wise) forest tree originating from the tropical forests of Africa.
As discussed in my previous blog article, the oil palm plantations are able to remove all CO2 emissions from land use changes, manufacturing activities and other sources not related to the use of fossil fuel in Malaysia. The oil palm is a net remover of CO2. The NGOs claim that their scientists, who are concerned only in their own unrecognized methodology in estimating CO2 emissions, have found the emissions from oil palm based biofuel to be higher than that of fossil fuel. Surely, such claims are ludicrous when oil palm is a net remover of CO2 by a large margin. Why do these scientists refuse or ignore to accept the facts? Are they confused with the politics of the highly competitive oils and fats trade? Should they change their affiliation to ‘Association of Confused Scientists’?
It’s high time NGOs separate the facts from the fiction.