The Oil Palm

If You Don’t Have The Data, How Can You Make The Claim?

Food industry news site Food Navigator picked up our recent policy blog in response to a report by Western NGO FERN, which recently made a series of claims about Malaysian Palm Oil.

The big statement made in their most recent report – and that we set about debunking was this:

“the available evidence suggests that most forest clearance for soy and cattle elsewhere in Latin America is also illegal, as it is for much of the palm oil from Malaysia.”

In short, the report claims that most clearance for much of the palm oil from Malaysia is illegal, based on available evidence.

That is a very serious allegation to make.

So our response was to track this evidence to its original source – a previous report by the same author for Forest Trends.

The Forest Trends report makes the following claim: in 2000-2012 deforestation for commercial agriculture which was illegal is 43 per cent.

To arrive at this, the study “assumes the problem is 50% of the measured average of Indonesia, Cambodia, and PNG; high-end analysis assumes it is equal to the average for these three countries.”

In other words, FERN’s claim is that Malaysia’s level of enforcement and compliance is half that of three other countries with completely different systems of government, federal and state regulations, systems of governance. The original report said “No suitable quantitative data exist on which to base estimates” of so-called illegal clearing, but FERN has just thrown the allegations at Malaysia anyway.

What’s the justification for the 50%? There isn’t one.

In fact, the study uses the same 50% figure when making estimates about Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos.

When making estimates about Paraguay and Peru, it simply used the 50% number on Latin American countries where it had data – Brazil and Bolivia.

When making estimates about African countries – where it had no data at all – it used 50% across a range of countries from Asia and Latin America.

Regardless of the accuracy of the measures in other countries, using them as proxies for illegality in forestry, agriculture or any other sector anywhere else in the world is a methodology that is poor at best, and completely erroneous, at worst.  It has all the scientific rigour of saying, “I reckon it’s about half.”

Even worse, it reeks of an attitude towards developing countries that has no compulsion to understand the significant differences between nations: “They all look pretty much the same.” This is the worst kind of attitude that a Western NGO could take, towards developing nations.

The response by FERN has been to say the following:

“Ideally the global estimate would have been produced by simply adding up the relative contribution of each country with tropical forest, but this was not possible because of lack of sufficient data on which to make a national-level assessment.”

But the real question is this: if you don’t have the data, how can you make the claim?

If there is no data, how is it possible to truthfully state that forest clearance for “much of the palm oil” from Malaysia is illegal?

Further, this doesn’t just apply to FERN and Forest Trends.

This applies to the UK Government – in the form of its Department for International Development (DfID) – which sponsored and provided funding for this report.

FERN has stated that “the UK Government had no say in the production of this report in any way, shape or form.” Perhaps not, but they were the ones that paid for it, and without that it would never have happened.

And to add an insult to Malaysia, FERN has stated that “Malaysia … hardly features in the report anyway.” This is a little like saying that a newspaper that devoted a full page to defaming someone doesn’t matter, because the rest of the newspaper was devoted to other subjects.

In fact, FERN has insulted Malaysia, the Malaysian Palm Oil community and both the independent and organised smallholders.

The FERN report gets to the heart of many of the Western debates about the environment and development in developing countries, and to the heart of the future of the global palm oil industry.

For many years, the campaign against deforestation in developing countries focused on the forestry sector. Timber and paper products became the enemy; campaigns against illegal logging that went after the timber product trade resulted in policies being implemented in Western countries. Then, almost overnight, there was the realisation that deforestation for the most part –

around 80 per cent – is caused by agriculture.  And around half of agricultural deforestation in Africa and Asia is from local and subsistence agriculture – in other words, poor people trying to grow food for their families.

At the same time, deforestation was repeatedly blamed for being a major contributor – around 25% according to some NGO estimates – to greenhouse emissions. This estimate has been almost halved.

There is a tendency of Western Environmental NGOs to construct an idealised pre-modern view of the developing world, where progress should for some reason not take place.

It’s literally a fantastic narrative, and facts simply make this narrative untenable.

In these circumstances, it would seem that twisting or cherry picking the data to fit the narrative makes more sense – particularly if you want to get headlines.