Sustainability of Palm Oil Production Revisited
I constantly receive invitations to speak at various seminars to explain the sustainability of palm oil production from Malaysia. Maybe it is confusing for the layman and industry players who receive conflicting claims from agencies like the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), as opposed to counter-claims by NGOs some of whom are totally anti-business and anti-developing countries in their stance.
Some of the NGOs are habitually harassing members of the RSPO, an international organization formed to help improve sustainability practices in the production of palm oil around the world. Like any new set-up, results will be forth-coming in a matter of time. But, these NGOs keep changing the goal-post, even though other prominent NGOs are members of the RSPO and are responsible for crafting the principles and criteria upon which the certification of palm oil is carried out.
Even without the RSPO, palm oil production in Malaysia is governed by laws and regulations aimed at making the industry "viable". This "viability" provision was incorporated in the Malaysian Palm Oil Board’s (MPOB) act although at that time it was not fashionable to use the word sustainable . The dictionary states that viability and sustainability roughly have similar meanings.
The palm oil industry is among the first to consciously apply R&D, licensing and registration activities to ensure the viability and sustainability of the industry. These are the functions entrusted and carried out by MPOB as it is a legally established body set up to see an orderly development of the palm oil industry. None of the other oilseed crops in the developed or developing countries has such a supervisory body to ensure the viability or sustainability of the targeted commodity.
Under the country’s many laws impacting the operations of the palm oil industry, it is possible to claim that palm oil is produced more viably than any other oilseed crop and through the close similarities in meaning between viability and sustainability, palm oil is much more sustainably produced as compared to other oilseed crops produced worldwide.
One can still pose the theoretical question, “Is Malaysian palm oil sustainably produced?”. Given the laws and regulations long put in place and the agencies created to supervise the palm oil industry, it is unfair to claim that palm oil is ‘not sustainable’. After all, there is no certifying body to prove that it is ‘not sustainable’.
If “not sustainable” is not the answer, the lawyers’ yes or no approach will tell us that palm oil production is “sustainable” even though some moderate NGOs often advise me to use the term “more sustainable”.
To prove palm oil’s sustainability, the producers willingly volunteered to agree to form the RSPO so that through its vetting process, sustainable palm oil can be certified. It is rather obvious that instead of applauding the companies who pass the stringent test of once again proving sustainability, NGOs who are not members of RSPO pick successful RSPO members as targets and prepare extensive and inaccurate reports to inform the world that the certificates awarded to the successful RSPO members are defective. The NGOs who are members of the RSPO seem contented that their counterparts outside the RSPO are insulting them by not recognising the good efforts that they have put in to bring RSPO thus far in introducing sustainable certification for palm oil. Ironically, those who are not successful in getting the RSPO certification are not targeted.
Other competing oilseed crops planted in the EU or the USA, the motherland countries of some of these ‘anti-developing countries’ NGOs, are similarly not targeted to prove certification for sustainability.
Certification is costly and time consuming. In the auditing process for RSPO, the oil palm farmers have to verify each boundary stone to prove that the land is legitimately theirs. They have to account for all the weedicide empty bottles to ensure safety procedures are followed. How many thousands of boundary stones will the palm oil farmers need to show to the auditors (who fly all the way from Europe) to fulfill the certification criteria to qualify them to obtain the RSPO certification whereas their counterparts in rest of the world need not face such a hassle.
We have 150,000 small farmers and about 3,000 estates covering 4.5 million hectares of oil palm plantations. These oil palm farmers have been farming their land for generations, and their legitimate agricultural land that they own have nothing to do with deforestation. These are indeed agricultural land.
Some of the EU NGOs however are not happy with the situation, and have offered to teach and train the oil palm farmers how to grow their oil palm sustainably as advertised in their websites. (I bet that some of the EU NGOs sitting in their posh London or Amsterdam offices would not recognise the three types of palm trees popularly planted in Malaysia, let alone teach the Malaysian farmers a course on sustainable planting of oil palm). How do you teach and train when you have no sound knowledge on a tropical crop ? It takes years for planters to learn all the parameters before they can claim to be experts.
By organising threatening demonstrations and anti palm oil campaigns in the EU, the NGOs have put considerable fear in politicians who then to try to find ways to comply with sustainability certification if palm oil were to be used as biofuel in the EU, for e.g. as recently seen in Germany. Why discriminate and require certification on the agricultural products of our farmers when the products of their farmers do not require such certification. Oil palm was cultivated in Malaysia long before soyabean was planted in Europe.
Others too are escaping the scrutiny of the anti palm oil NGOs whether by intention or otherwise. By focusing on palm oil biofuel these NGOs allow the petroleum companies to continue to pollute and emit green house gases by promoting the continued use of fossil fuel. Last year, petroleum companies made huge profits (in the billions of dollars) but none seemed to be invested in reforesting Europe or USA where deforestation had occurred, and the GHG which has been released from past over-deforestation remains in the atmosphere. The only way to remove the released GHG is to reforest the EU which has over developed its land; up to 70 % of the total land area is used for agriculture.
Let’s face it, the real culprits are the fossil fuels. Maybe the NGOs are doing the fossil fuel industry a great service by diverting attention towards deforestation. Every 10 cars in their lifetime emit GHG equivalent to the deforestation of one hectare of forest. The EU introduces 15 million new cars every year and this will emit GHG equivalent to 1.5 million hectares of deforestation. In ten years the deforestation equivalent of EU’s new car population is estimated at 15 million hectares.
Both the oil palm planted areas of Malaysia and Indonesia which have been in business for almost 100 years are only about 11 million hectares and these are part of their agriculture land. Even then, oil palm occupies less than 5% of Indonesia’s land area. The oil palm industry allows the country to be self sufficient in food oil and to export the surplus to other countries to earn some US$17 billion which helps overcome poverty in the country.
Let’s get the facts right. Indonesia still maintains more than 50% of its land area under permanent forest. Malaysia allocates 12% of its land area for growing oil palm which takes up 66 % of its agricultural area and maintains more than 50% of its land area under permanent forest.
The NGOs often call for developing countries to stop developing our agriculture and preserve our forests. They do not care whether we have enough food produced for the country, or generate sufficient revenue to attain a decent standard of living. They want a moratorium on deforestation which means a stop to agriculture because in the tropics, whatever is not allocated as agricultural land for now will look like forest when viewed from a satellite picture which will be the key tool used for monitoring deforestation.
Because of the potential contention of what constitutes degraded land that can be rehabilitated by planting suitable crops such as oil palm or rubber, many developing countries would be reluctant to agree on a blanket deforestation policy. They will probably agree if forests that are classified as permanent and sustainably managed forests, national parks, and animal sanctuaries are declared off limits to agricultural development. In Malaysia such forests are already gazetted as permanent forests . Even if it has to be used for some other purposes, the law requires an equivalent area of replacement to be provided.
Some NGOs like to quote me as making an over claim on the sustainability issue. As a former head of the MPOB, my job was to prosecute lawbreakers in the oil palm industry by issuing them compounds or taking them to court so that their offences are dealt with appropriately.
In any community, industry or country, there are always lawbreakers who do not follow the rules. I am sure it happens also in the countries where the NGOs reside. If the public or NGOs provide evidence of the lawbreakers misdeeds, authorities like MPOB will immediately take action.
In an industry that is governed by laws, it is a welcome move if the NGOs are willing and able to submit evidence of wrong doing committed in the oil palm industry. A report by an NGO on actions taken by the Sabah Forestry Department forest land encroachment is proof that the law is being enforced. If the forest land is encroached upon by illegal immigrant workers who think that shifting cultivation is still tolerated, the relevant authorities will act to enforce the law, and such plantation will be non sustainable. That will imply that the legitimate oil palm plantations on agricultural land are sustainable.