Friday, 23 October 2009

Palm plantations: a clear and present danger

Published on October 14, 2009 The Nation Newspaper, Thailand

Re: "Folly vs fact: A reality check on palm oil", Opinion, October 10.

The palm oil industry is in denial and panic. It knows it is 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 all of Borneo and Sumatra. Of this there is not a single doubt.

It is time for the industry to stop trying to deny the undeniable truth. Trying to misrepresent the motives of NGOs 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 chequebooks, as they have done so massively with Fair Trade products, whether or not they want palm oil in their homes or cars.

No one I know is opposed to palm oil. It is a 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.

To visit Kalimantan, Sumatra or Sarawak is to witness the catastrophic decimation of wildlife, forests, local communities, and rivers polluted with insecticides. The scene resembles and feels like a gold rush, with palm oil companies grabbing what forest they can, whilst they can, before a competitor does.

Countless documentaries have shown thousands of hectares of bare land, where palm oil companies have bought a licence to log a forest and convert the land to plantation. Once the forest is logged, many companies vanish with their profits from logging, leaving the land bare, only to start again under a new name not far away, time and again.

Does World Growth chairman Alan Oxley honestly believe the BBC, Discovery Channel and National Geographic are all wrong with what they have filmed and reported?

In Sarawak there have been innumerable reports of this same industry denying indigenous tribes their rights to their land. The same happens in Indonesia. 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, which sometimes means helping them, at their request, defend their ancestral forests from the land-grabbing palm oil companies.

Any NGO brave enough to help tribes repel loggers in Sarawak runs a very serious risk to their personal 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 who expose this industry for what it is - arguably the most environmentally destructive in the world.