Friday, 23 October 2009

ENVIRONMENT: Palm oil industry must get out of denial mode


2009/10/23 The New Straits Times, Malaysia

THE palm oil industry is in denial and in a panic. The recent charm initiative by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) was little more than a clumsy attempt at applying some tacky gloss over the activities of an industry responsible for the deaths of thousands of orang utans, tens of millions of other wildlife forms and logging -- both legal and otherwise -- on an industrial scale throughout Kalimantan and Sumatra.

It is time for the industry to stop trying to deny the undeniable truth. Trying to misrepresent the motives of non-governmental organisations will win the industry no friends in either the public or political arenas. The truth will win out in the end and the public will decide with their credit cards and cheque books, as they have done so massively with Fair Trade products, whether or not they want non-RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) approved palm oil in their homes or cars.

No one is opposed to palm oil. It is a very versatile oil and we all need and consume it. The problem is not palm oil but the methods used to develop and manage plantations throughout Indonesia and Sarawak, often by Malaysian-owned companies. To visit Kalimantan, Sumatra or Sarawak is to witness the catastrophic destruction of wildlife, forests, local communities and rivers polluted with insecticides.

Palm oil companies are grabbing what forests they can, while they can. Countless documentaries have shown thousands of hectares of bare land, where palm oil companies have bought licences to log forests and convert it to plantations.

Once the forests are logged, many companies in Indonesia (where Malaysian companies are ever present) vanish with their quick profits from logging, leaving the land bare, only to start again under a new name not far away. Does the MPOC honestly believe that BBC, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, etc, all misrepresent the facts they have filmed and reported? If so, let's hear this from the MPOC.

In Sarawak, there have been many reports of this same industry denying indigenous tribes their rights to their land. Although less reported, the same happens in Indonesia.

Australian academic Alan Oxley claims NGOs are opposed to poor people improving their lives, when the truth is exactly the opposite.

In Indonesia, there are countless NGOs trying to help indigenous people improve their lives, which sometimes means helping them, at their request, to defend their ancestral forests from land-grabbing palm-oil companies. Any NGO brave enough to help tribal people repel loggers making way for oil palm plantations in Sarawak runs a very serious risk to its safety.

Only if and when the palm oil industry gets out of denial will it begin to see the wood for the trees and start to address the real causes of the problems, rather than attempt to denigrate NGOs which expose this industry for what it is, arguably the most environmentally destructive in the world.

SEAN WHYTE, Chief executive Nature Alert