The Oil Palm

Environmental Activism Dressed Up as Health Research

Recently, two US universities launched an unprovoked attack on the Malaysian Palm Oil industry, peddling misleading statistics about the haze event of 2015. Greenpeace has used these erroneous figures to spread fears about Malaysian Palm Oil, including at the EPOC Conference currently underway in Warsaw.

Harvard and Columbia Universities launched a report that attempted to quantify the number of deaths from the haze event of 2015.  In doing so, they have grave errors that have unfairly damaged the respected record of the Malaysian Palm Oil industry, spread misplaced health fears and damaged the view of Malaysians towards these prestigious universities.

Let’s establish something from the start: there is zero doubt that the haze events do have an impact on public health. That is clear, and unarguable. And there is zero doubt that if the level of haze is reduced, there will be a reduction in these health impacts.

However, advancing good fire management or the public’s health was not on these academics minds.  Rather, the goal was to advance an agenda that appeases their rich New York City donor class at the expense of 300,000 hard-working Malaysian small farmers.  This is Western greed and alarmism at its worst.

The Claims

Harvard and Columbia researchers have estimated the number of premature deaths as being in excess of 100,000 people, with more than 6,000 in Malaysia and more than 2,000 in Singapore.

The Malaysian Deputy Director General of Health Datuk Dr S. Jeyaindran rejected the findings and said of the results, ‘no such thing’ had been the case in reality.

The results have also been rebuffed by the governments of Indonesia and Singapore.

Indonesia’s country’s disaster mitigation agency said the research “could be baseless or they have the wrong information”. Singapore’s Ministry of Health said the study was “not reflective of the actual situation”. But it’s no surprise that government officials have reacted angrily.

The Data

First, the paper doesn’t consider the extensive empirical data available on emergency attendances and hospital admissions in both Singapore and Malaysia.

Both countries have quite reliable hospital and public health data. Most of it is published regularly or accessible to the public. Yet none of this is sourced in the new paper.

There have also been at least two public health studies on hospital admissions in the Klang Valley and Singapore that have utilised this data. The Malaysian study in fact examined the hospital admissions over a seven-year period between 2000 and 2007, based on particulate data. Neither of these studies appear in the new article’s citations.

Second, the article cites the haze events of 1997 and 2006 as baselines. The article appears to ignore the possibility that public health measures – warning systems, public service announcements – have improved significantly in two decades, particularly in Singapore and Malaysia. Awareness of potential risks has likely lessened any impacts. This is something that could be verified with empirical data from national health systems.

There is a possible reason that much health data was overlooked or left out: this new paper is not really about health – it is really about environmental dogma. The analysis and data collection on actual health impacts is quite small. The bulk of the paper is about improving land tenure in Indonesia. The lead authors are overwhelmingly from environmental schools; there is only one pure health academic out of the 12 authors.

The underlying question, then, must be this: why has the ‘100,000 deaths’ become the headline for the paper?

The answer is simple: opportunism. This narrative they have alighted upon is public health, and the shocking headline is premature deaths due to the (environmental) haze event.

This is despite the research saying that fire hotspots in palm oil concessions had actually fallen:

“Although oil palm concessions have previously been implicated as a major driver of peat burning in Indonesia (Koh et al 2011), we find that burning in oil palm concessions in 2006 accounted for only 11% of total FRP [i.e. hotspots] in Sumatra and 32% in Kalimantan. In 2015, these contributions declined to just 5% and 20%, respectively.”

The Harvard and Columbia researchers would also have been well aware that NGOs would jump on this figure and use it as a stick to beat the industry with. It’s also therefore not surprising that the paper’s lead researcher has undertaken joint research with Greenpeace in the past.

What the researchers and Greenpeace have ended up doing is generating a simple headline that betrays the difficulty of finding a solution to a complex problem on the ground. The net result is environmental advocacy masquerading as public health concerns.

Harvard & Columbia: Manufacturing Junk Science

This matters, because it undermines some important research principles. A goal of attempting to quantify public health outcomes in one country based on land-use management policy and practices in another is a minefield. Land tenure is an inherently political issue that touches on governance, legal systems and property rights. Land use management is intertwined with economic considerations. Fire management – and environmental management more broadly – has at its core financial management and administrative capacity. Each of these issues is big enough on its own; they should be solved for their own sakes. To try to manufacture headlines around public health as a way of simply glossing over these challenges is just opportunistic and unprofessional headline-grabbing.

This is a clear point where ‘research’ crosses over into advocacy. The scholars involved should publicly decry the Greenpeace action and state what their intentions actually are, and what is actually proven (or not) by the little hard health data in their new report. A fundamental question needs to be posed, and answered: are they health researchers or environmental campaigners?

Lastly, who paid for the report?  The study has been backed by nearly USD4 million in grants from the US-based Rockefeller Foundation, which has a history of supporting groups that are anti-palm oil.