Sunday, 24 May 2009

Getting a grip on oil palm issues: OPTIMISTICALLY CAUTIOUS

Saturday May 23, 2009 The Star, Malaysia


THIS month didn’t start well for the plantation industry. Over the first two days, British newspaper The Independent ran several hard-hitting articles, anchored by a front-page editorial on May 1, that blamed the expansion of oil palm area in Malaysia and Indonesia for ills caused by deforestation.

The allegations – that the current clearing of land to make way for estates is crowding out indigenous people and wild animals, and is contributing to global warming – are not really news. We have heard these many times before.

However, the newspaper, known for its forceful campaigns on environmental issues, has adopted a relatively fresh angle that’s meant to lay a guilt trip on readers.

The Independent says it has discovered that many of Britain’s best-selling products, particularly food items, contain palm oil and therefore, consumers are part of the problem.

It relies on the name-and-shame tactic, listing manufacturers and retailers who use palm oil, and highlighting their policies on the commodity. These companies include Unilever, Cadbury, Mars, Kellogg’s, Procter & Gamble, Nestle and Kraft.

“At breakfast, when millions of us are munching toast, we’re eating a small slice of the rainforest,” reminds an article. In other words, The Independent is saying the cookies, crisps and candy bars that the British love are laced with the blood of orangutans, the symbol of the victims of deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra.

The intent is clear – the newspaper wants to shape popular opinion into a market force that will pressure businesses into halting the opening of oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. The tool of choice is the threat of a consumer boycott.

Here’s how the May 1 editorial concludes: “The destruction wrought by the palm oil industry is no longer a distant problem. Its bitter fruits can be found in our shopping trolleys. We need to send a clear message to the food industry by removing them without delay.”

It is interesting that the package of articles in The Independent includes one written by Greenpeace forest campaigner James Turner.

The non-governmental organisation (NGO) has long pushed for a moratorium on oil palm expansion into Indonesia’s rainforest and peatland areas. This stance is increasingly relevant as we approach the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Denmark in December.

The conservation of forests is expected to be a hot topic at the talks, and a strident consumer lobby against products with palm oil will definitely be a valuable bargaining chip.

There have been some attempts to counter the newspaper articles. In his latest blog entry, Malaysian Palm Oil Council chief executive officer Tan Sri Yusof Basiron says The Independent is “telling lies” and disputes several points raised in the stories.

A little-known outfit called the Palm Oil Truth Foundation also pooh-poohs the reports, saying The Independent has “joined the ranks of the integrity-challenged witch-hunters”.

Yusof is doing his job, of course, and The Independent articles are indeed more about putting across certain views than it is about presenting a balanced picture. So, there is much in the stories that can and should be contested.

However, the plantation industry must go beyond refuting untruths and inaccuracies. It should also come clean about its shortcomings and commit to plans to remedy these. There must be a willingness to strictly enforce the law and weed out the black sheep of the industry.

There is a sense that not all the oil palm growers and policy-makers in Malaysia quite grasp the nature and extent of the challenge the industry faces on the environmental front. For one thing, it’s wrong to liken this to the anti-palm oil lobby of the 1980s.

The opposition today is a different beast from that of 20 years ago, when the soybean farmers waged a turf war with the palm oil producers. Back then, the focus was palm oil itself and its effect on the health of consumers.

Today, the practices of the oil palm industry are being targeted, and those attacking are NGOs and the media, organisations that are widely seen as altruistic and trustworthy. It’s difficult to be dismissive when they are talking about saving the planet and its natural resources.

Fighting the anti-palm oil lobby of the 1980s required some savvy wielding of science and cold, hard facts. That won’t work well this time around because the issues raised are often emotional and abstract. Furthermore, the audience in the West are thousands of kilometres away. They will never get the ringside view that the plantation industry and we in Malaysia and Indonesia have. Merely presenting our side of the story will do little to help our case.

The best solution is to mature quickly into a well-regulated industry that deeply understands its impact on people and the environment.

To do this, the industry and the authorities have to first ask themselves some tough questions. Do we have our hearts in the right place? Are we united in what we stand for and in what we need to do to fight this? Are we ready to penalise those that do not play by the rules?

Have we done enough to ensure that the industry does as little harm to the world as possible, particularly by subscribing to the principles of sustainable production of palm oil? Are we transparent and open to engagement with all stakeholders?

Without honest answers to these questions, the palm oil industry will be hard-pressed to come up with a solid game plan that can lead to an enduring position of trust and respect among buyers, consumers and NGOs.

Because deputy business editor Errol Oh grew up in rubber and oil palm estates – his father was a planter – the issues affecting the plantation industry is no less real to him than the woes of an over-exploited planet.