Oil Palm Launches Investigative Reporting Series

The Oil Palm launches today a series on issues impacting the global palm oil industry. In today’s first edition, freelance journalist Alex Singleton, goes deep into the heart of the Borneo to hear from experts on the state of the orang-utan and to explore the necessity of a ‘No Kill’ policy.

Sandakan, Sabah – If you listen to Western campaigners, you’ll hear that palm oil is destroying the rainforest. You’ll be told that the crop is wiping out the orangutan. But it turns out that neither of these claims is true. I went to Malaysia to find the truth – and discovered that lots the Western NGOs, who pontificate about oil palm from their air-conditioned offices in Brussels, Islington and Manhattan, have no idea what they are talking about.

What I found was a government and an industry committed to protect orangutans and the forest. Major palm oil exporters such as Sime Darby were bankrolling environmental projects, both through direct funding and through a levy the sector pays on every export.

According to Hubert Petol of the Sabah Forestry Department: “We have a lot of help from the palm oil companies. They give us massive funding for reforestation, wildlife monitoring, checking stations and enforcing the law.” But he is sceptical of the work of Western NGOs: “The difference between those NGOs and us is that we are doing the conservation, not just promoting it. The money is used on the ground: it goes to the local people. We give people money to make an alternative living [rather than expanding into the forest, growing low-yield crops]. This includes growing fruit trees, which feed the orangutans. In Sabah, the number of orangutans has stabalised.”

At the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, also in the Malaysian state of Sabah, orphaned orangutans who have strayed onto palm oil fields are rehoused. They are looked after in a nursery and taught to climb and look after themselves, before being let out into the natural world.

I had expected some criticism, here, of the oil palm companies. But Sylvia Alsisto of the Centre had no complaints: “Palm oil companies respect the law – they are afraid of it. People can just kill orangutans, but we have co-operation with palm oil companies and they know that these animals are protected.” She described calls by some Western NGOs for a new “no kill policy” as “superfluous”, adding that: “It’s really sad when people get the wrong picture. Look at the number of the organ-utans we’ve got. We have people calling us from palm oil plantations asking us for help protecting them.”

What’s more, the major oil palm companies routinely give up land to help protect animals. “The big companies are happy to give up land for elephant corridors,” Rosa Sipangkui of the Saba Wildlife Department told me. “It means the elephants won’t go onto their plantations.” For the smallholders, she explained that a Japanese charity raises funds to buy elephant corridors. “But the big plantations use their corporate social responsibility policies and don’t need to be paid”.

Another of the projects funded by the industry is the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund, supported by over $3,000,000 from producers, and an equal amount from the Malaysian government. This, among other initiatives, funds a Jungle Patrol Unit at the Tangkulap-Pinangah Forest Reserve, to prevent poaching. Such industry initiatives could be found throughout Malaysian Borneo.

OK, you may be saying: the industry pays for conservation. But what about the accusation, commonplace in Europe, that palm oil is destroying the rainforest? Not true, according to one of the world’s top scientific experts on the rainforest. I sat in the audience when Dr Glen Reynolds CBE, from Britain’s Royal Society, spoke on the Malaysian rainforest. “There’s no conversion of primary forest to oil palm. It’s degraded forest to oil palm,” he said. Reynolds’ project is a huge eco-biodiversity project, funded by significant grants from oil palm companies such as Sime Darby, who seem keen to support the improvement of science-based environmental research in Borneo. Reynolds also agreed that environmental NGOs’ focus on the orang-utan was not supported by science: in fact, for the rainforest ecosystem, smaller (but less cute) creatures such as ants or termites were far more important and should receive more focus and attention, rather than orangutans which have comparably little positive impact on the rainforest ecosystem. Contrary to all the noise from NGOs, it turns out that oil palm is being grown as a replacement for less profitable crops, such as rubber and coffee.

Of course, over the past century, the Malaysian people have cut down forest. But so have all the Europeans and Americans. In fact, tree cover in the United States is now only 35%, while the UK is under 12%. In Malaysia, tree cover is over 50%, and over the past 20 years, the Malaysian government has stuck to a UN commitment made at the 1992 Rio Summit to protect at least 50% of its forest.

So much for the claims, so beloved by NGOs, that Malaysia is rapidly and irresponsibly wiping out its forest. It has done rather better than most of the rich countries.

In fact, I sometimes wonder if the NGOs who criticise the Malaysians for growing crops have really thought through the alternatives. I mean, what should poor Malaysians do if they have to replant all their farmland with forest? Live in trees? Commit hari kari?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services”. Yet if the Malaysians did what some of the more hysterical NGOs seem to want and stopped using any land at all, those essential rights would disappear. The country would simply descend into an economic abyss.

Or maybe the NGOs just want the plantation of oil palm to stop. But that would be environmentally idiotic. Why? Well, oil palm is the most land-efficient crop that the Malaysians have discovered. To generate the same level of export revenue with any other crop, the Malaysians would need to use much more land. And let’s face it: the real choice is not between forest and oil palm, but between oil palm and other crops. On that basis, Westerners ought to be cheering the high yields from oil palm, not attacking the crop.

And the yields per hectare are growing. Thanks to hybridisation, oil palms are producing increasing amounts of oil – and palm oil is by far the most environmentally efficient vegetable oil. By 2050, it is estimated that population growth will mean the world will need to produce an extra 9.3 billion tonnes of vegetable oil. If this is produced from soyabeans, this will require the cultivation of 333 million more hectares of land. If from oil palms, this will only require 25 million – and much of the growth will end up being in Africa. Which do you think is the better choice?

What we see in Malaysia is a people genuinely moving towards the Millennium Development Goals. Its government estimates that absolute poverty will be abolished by 2020.

The country is balancing sound environmental stewardship with economic growth. And isn’t that the whole point of is sustainable development?

This is the first article in a series by British freelance journalist Alex Singleton. In future series, Singleton will explore vexing questions faced by the industry, including uptake of certified palm oil by Western multinationals, the role of organizations like WWF in promoting palm oil and the impact of palm oil on small farmers.

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Written by The Oil Palm