Take the bull by the horns

The battle continues and it will not stop just yet. Since the 1980s, Malaysia has fought many environmental and trade campaigns against its commodities, notably timber and palm oil. To put it simply, the developed nations want us to preserve our tropical forests, which are considered an important carbon sink for the world.
So, we cannot cut our forests for productive economic purposes, like turning them into high value-add furniture, or clear them to plant oil palm and rubber that provide us with much-needed income and help alleviate poverty. At the forefront of these campaigns is almost always the face of a displaced orang utan. They do not reveal the picture of a developing Malaysia that has progressed economically and where poverty has been drastically reduced since independence in 1957, or the fact that the country benefits substantially from the timber, palm oil and rubber sectors, which consistently bring in between RMSO billion and RM90 billion in export revenue a year.

Last week, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) appeared at a public hearing of the Australian Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee to present its case on why palm oil should not be discriminated against on the pretext of saving the environment.

The charge sheet, this time, is in the form of the Food Standards Amendment (Truth in Labelling — Palm Oil) Bill 2010, which was brought forward by independent senator Nick Xenophon. If the Bill is passed, the Australian food industry would be mandated to label products to inform consumers whether the palm oil used was produced in plantations that caused deforestation or those that were sustainably managed and had minimal impact on the environment and wildlife habitat, notably of the orang utan.

The Bill states that palm oil is used in about 40% of food products in Australia. Under current labelling laws, however, manufacturers can label palm oil as vegetable oil, thus preventing consumers from being able to make informed choices in the food they purchase or consume.

In its testimony, the MPOC argued that the Bill was based on misleading claims and erroneous statistics and was aimed at harming the Malaysian economy and palm oil. The greatest impact of the Bill, it seems, would be to single out palm oil as the only product in Australia to mandatorily be labelled for reasons other than health or nutrition.

The MPOC explained that Malaysia takes care of its forests and is committed to maintain at least 50% of its total land area under forest, and that plantation crops (like oil palm) would only be permitted on land set aside for agriculture. It noted that for every hectare of oil palm, the country maintains four hectares as permanent forests. Thus, the natural habitat of the orang utan is being preserved.

The MPOC also argued that as a vegetable oil, palm oil is healthier than many others and is trans fat-free. The palm oil sector, being one of the major components of the economy, also provides a lot of jobs and an income stream for previously landless settlers.

Malaysia has also explained many times at various international trade platforms, seminars and conferences that oil palm and rubber crops that some of our forests give way to are forest species and what we are doing is actually cultivating forest plantations in a sustainable manner. Unlike crops like corn, soyabean and rapeseed, these trees balance out the original forest cover and do not consume large amounts of irrigated water.

Over the years, the arguments against Malaysia by the anti-palm oil and tropical timber campaigns have not changed much. In the mid-1980s in the US, the American Soya Bean Association (ASA) was our fiercest anti-palm oil foe. With the support of the soyabean industry and lobbyists, the ASA managed to get senator Tom Harkins and congressman Dan Glickman then to introduce a Bill to list palm oil as saturated fat a risk factor in cardiovascular disease on food product labels.

Oil palm plantations were also blamed as a major cause of deforestation.

As for the timber sector, we were accused of continuously practising clear felling, whereby RIS large tracts of forest are entirely cleared. To refute the claim, we explained that we practise selective logging or forest harvesting, where trees are logged on a rotational cycle, often on a 30-year and 55-year cycle. Only a few mature trees between 7 and 12 trees per hectare are earmarked for felling in each rotational cycle.

We also told the NGOs and trade associations that our tropical trees — despite their ecosystem being one of oldest in the world — do die naturally and it will be a waste in terms of the revenue they can generate for the nation if they are not harvested. Some of this information may seem basic to us but it must be consistently repeated so that more people overseas will understand and be better informed about the real situation.

Like what the MPOC is doing in Australia, previous battles were successfully fought through explanation, backed by strong R&D efforts that allowed us to sell products that are competitive, superior in terms of health, friendly to the environment and sustain- ably produced.

When the anti-tropical timber and palm oil campaigns first hit us, we cried “unfair trade practices”, “protectionism in disguise” and “another form of non-tariff barrier” imposed by the industrialised nations on the Third World. However, what really worked in the end was that we chose to spend money and time on R&D, producing results that could counter these allegations.

It was the external pressure from the NGOs some sanctioned by trade competitors and governments — that “forced” the government and local industries to do the right thing. Instead of lamenting that eco-abelling was part of “dirty” trade tactics, Malaysia now has in place sustainable forest practices acknowledged by reputable bodies like the UN’s International Tropical Timber Organisation.

We also voluntarily came up with our own timber certification programme, which indicates that our timber products come from sustainably managed forests and meet international standards, notably that of our export markets in Europe and the US. Similarly, in the palm oil sector, the industry has come up with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) initiative and certification.\n

Mounting environmental pressures have once again forced the nation to think out of the box and it has successfully turned what were previously considered waste products rubberwood and oil palm trunks  into commercial timber that can be used by the furniture sector. Rubberwood has for some time been the main raw material for the country’s wooden furniture sector, which exported RM6.5 billion worth of products last year. The usage of oil palm trunks is expected to increase.

The consumption of rubberwood and oil palm trunks, which are available in large volumes because rubber and oil palm estates go through a sustainable replanting process, also means that fewer trees will be cut from our natural forests.

Australia’s eco-labelling move will certainly not be the last that the palm oil and timber sectors face. However, unlike in the 1980s and 1990s, when Malaysia often felt victimised and bullied by the industrial world, it is now better prepared to face the challenges. It has taken the bull by the horns.

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Written by The Oil Palm