Singleton: A Royal Perspective on Malaysian Conservation

by Alex Singleton, September 20, 2012

After a three-day tour of Malaysia, what should Prince William and Kate Middleton take back to London about the country?

Well, I hope that they will report back that, contrary to the increasingly hysterical claims of British activists, Malaysia is doing a great deal to protect its environment.

British campaigners sit in front of their designer laptops at fashionable coffee shops in central London complaining that Malaysia is tearing up all of its rainforest and killing orang-utans. But they say this with little, if any, understanding of what is actually happening in your country.

NGOs such as the UK-based NatureAlert and WWF have made unsubstantiated claims against Malaysia and the palm oil industry to advance campaigns against the use of palm oil, claims that have been called “preposterous” and “baseless” by conservation experts that work in Malaysia every day.

What the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will have noticed ­ as I did when touring the Malaysian rainforest ­ is a nation that utterly committed to protecting its environment. Far from casually killing orang-utans, farmers in Malaysia Borneo go to huge lengths to protect them. In particular, the palm oil sector, so vital for Malaysia’s economic development, pays for extensive environmental programmes, which, for example, include looking after orphaned orang-utans and providing elephant corridors through farmland.

Since the Rio Treaty was signed in 1992, Malaysia has embarked on an impressive effort to achieve sustainable development ­ pursuing the dual objectives of reducing poverty and preserving the country’s environment and biodiversity.

It stands as an example of how these two priorities can be achieved hand in hand, with more than 50% of the country’s forest cover preserved in perpetuity and boasting poverty rates of 3.8% as of 2009. Bear in mind that rich countries such as Britain have removed large swathes of their forest: the UK’s forest cover is now a mere 12%. What this all goes to show is that Malaysia has been developing economically in a much greener way than countries as the UK.

Palm oil has played a central role in this achievement, providing significant incomes to rural communities and vital infrastructure development and social services. Meanwhile, the highly efficient crop has allowed the country to produce significant amounts of product for export without the normally associated pressure on the nation’s wildlife preserves and sanctuaries.

However, Malaysia is not just sitting back and applauding itself. The country is actively working with domestic and international institutions such as the Royal Society of London to better understand the behaviours and needs of species like the orang-utan, so as to better protect them and ensure not only that Malaysians are happy and comfortable, but so is the country’s environmental endowment.

Instead, the Royal Society’s research is pretty damning of the European activists who endlessly claim that rainforest is being chopped down to make way for oil palm plantations. Dr Glen Reynolds from the society has pointed that: “There¹s no conversion of primary forest to oil palm. It’s degraded forest to oil palm”. What’s actually happening is that farmers are switching from less profitable crops such as rubber and coffee.

Yet despite the achievements of Malaysia, they are never enough for the NGOs, who have to keep shouting about how terrible everything is in order keep their funding. A particularly pernicious demand is that all producers of palm oil must be certified by the WWF-founded Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This ignores the important contribution that palm oil makes to poverty alleviation in the country, where more than 39% of land under cultivation is owned and managed by small farmers.

These small producers are incapable of affording the costs of certification, and requiring RSPO certification for access to markets such as the UK would chain these small producers to lives of poverty. Given how much NGOs also criticise Big Business, it is hypocritical for them to try to destroy the ability of small landowners to make a living.

It would show tremendous kindness and charity to their hosts for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to take back to Britain what they will inevitably have seen of the environmental work. With so many NGOs promoting misinformed arguments, it is important that David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, and Owen Paterson, the British Environment Secretary, are aware of the truth about Malaysia’s commitment to protecting its rainforests.

Indeed, the British government has, in recent weeks, signalled its design to weaken the control of ill-informed NGOs over its environmental policy. So a firm commitment from the UK to support both the economic development and conservation aspirations of Malaysia would be fit in both with where British policy is going more generally, but also show a true willingness to support efforts to eliminate poverty throughout the world.

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Written by The Oil Palm