Research published in the journal Nature, is being misrepresented by activists to attack Malaysia’s management of peatlands, with the goal of reducing the attractiveness of palm oil in overseas markets. Activists allege that palm oil plantations in Malaysia are responsible for degrading peat swamps and causing CO2 emissions which contribute to climate change. This is yet another effort by Western governments – the US and Europe – and the NGOs they fund to disparage palm oil in the hopes of keeping our miracle oil out of the marketplace for food and biofuels.
The campaign is spurious and hypocritical. The study assesses the amount of carbon released into waterways when peat forests are degraded. It does not quantify the CO2 emissions from degradation of peat lands. There is currently little science to assess how much carbon in waterways is emitted as CO2. Some evidence indicates that waterways and oceans are considerable carbon sinks and not carbon sources.
Regardless of the processes that convert carbon to CO2 in waterways, the total quantity of carbon that enters waterways from peat lands is relatively small compared to the total carbon stored in peat soils. The researchers calculated the total quantity of carbon that entered South East Asian waterways at around 2.4 Tg over an 18 year period. This probably represents a miniscule fraction of the total amount of carbon stored in South East Asian peat lands, which have been estimated to store around 60 000 Tg.
Respected Malaysian scientist, Dr Lullie Melling, recently highlighted the hypocrisy of foreign NGOs that criticise Malaysian peatlands management commenting that peatlands in the Netherlands had shrunken to around 3 per cent of their original size. Despite being based in the Netherlands, both Greenpeace International and Wetlands International, both of whom are actively campaigning against Malaysian palm oil, focus considerable campaign resources on tropical peatlands such as those in Malaysia.
Despite the fact that most peatlands are located in developed countries in the Northern Hemisphere, many of these peatlands continue to be degraded. It appears that NGOs are interested in restricting agricultural development in South East Asia, over genuine measures to protect global peatlands.
Tropical peatlands do play an important role in the global carbon cycle, and may potentially store greater quantities of carbon due to their significant depth. However, there is no credible evidence to suggest that Malaysian management of peat soils is contributing to climate change.
On the contrary, emerging research indicates that CO2 emissions from oil palm plantations do not vary significantly from secondary forest or peat swamp forests. In fact, Dr Melling – a leading peat researcher – has found that greenhouse gas emissions from peat soil planted with oil palm trees may result in fewer emissions than forested peatlands. Supplementary research has confirmed that “…palms on deep tropical peat were neither a carbon sink nor source”.
Yet activists continue to make sweeping statements that attack Malaysian agricultural industries for planting oil palms on peat soils and contributing to climate change, despite lacking scientific evidence.
Ultimately the new data and findings provide little support for the allegations. The research is based on relatively few samples sites located in the Malaysian Peninsula. Attempts to apply these findings – derived from only eight sample sites in a relatively narrow geographical range – to regional or global climate processes, fails to provide statistical certainty.
Peatlands in Malaysia are well managed by government and industry. While much of the palm oil industry’s expansion in Malaysia over the last few decades has occurred on degraded lands, or those previously used for other plantation crops, limited expansion onto peatlands has generally complied with strict management practices. Malaysian industry has embraced practices to improve environmental outputs from plantations located on peat soils; including zero burning policies, good water management and measure to improve palm nutrition.
Malaysian economic development is sustainable and responsible, and the approach to achieving this has been science-based. Campaigns that misrepresent greenhouse gas emissions from peat is disingenuous and hurts efforts to alleviate poverty and market opportunities for small farmers. The Malaysian experience in palm oil production demonstrates that a vibrant agricultural sector and strong sustainability outputs are not mutually exclusive goals. Through a strict process of land zoning, effective regulation, and leading environmental management techniques, Malaysia is achieving genuine sustainable development and societal advancement.