Friday, 13 November 2009

Palm Oil Industry Needs to Reform

Published: The Jakarta Globe, 13th November

Palm Oil Industry Needs to Reform

With the world’s largest single event in the palm oil industry happening this week in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, it is time to set the record straight on myths perpetuated by the industry.

Time and again, in an effort to shift blame and focus away from itself, the industry has attempted to depict nongovernmental organizations as activists trying to put it out of business. Nothing could be further from the truth.

After enjoying years of freedom logging millions of hectares of rainforest, the industry is at last being held accountable for the undeniable destruction it has wreaked. And after having done as they pleased for quite a while, some industry executives (thankfully, a declining number) cannot stomach being questioned or, worse, seeing their industry exposed for what it is — arguably the most environmentally destructive industry in the world.

As bad as the industry is, NGOs don’t want to see it close down; neither are they seeking a boycott of palm oil. All NGOs are asking (and I generalize here) is for the industry to develop without causing such massive and irreversible damage to the environment. Is it unreasonable to expect palm oil businesses to permit indigenous tribes to retain and live on their ancestral lands without threats and intimidation? This is what happens every single day in Indonesia and Malaysia.

If the industry is left unchallenged, there could be little or no forest cover left in either country some 20 years from now. No habitats for elephants, orangutans and tigers, nor for birds and insects to pollinate plants. No indigenous tribes left either. We could see the incidents of landslides increasing, as well as massive changes in climate and rising sea levels that could swallow islands and coastal communities. All the evidence point to this scenario. It’s precisely for these reasons NGOs are asking the industry to change its operating procedures. We don’t oppose profit or development. We oppose greed, human rights abuses and the rampant destruction of the environment — values that most reasonable people have no argument with.

I leave you with the recent wise words of Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun during a conference in Malaysia: The palm oil “industry must learn to self-regulate. Eventually, by the full force of global pressure on the need for sustainable harvesting, it will have to be done. “Profit comes from the soil and while the state government is dependent on [revenue] from palm oil, we need planters to be responsible. And as responsible corporate citizens, they should only take what is necessary. But we have done practically everything to nature and, because of that, we have to be ashamed of ourselves. We have destroyed beautiful forests and polluted the rivers to satisfy our greed.”

Isn’t it about time an Indonesian minister had the courage to make a similar statement?

Food for thought. I hope.

Sean Whyte
Chief executive, Nature Alert

other letters by Sean Whyte and published in the Jakarta Globe can be viewed at