Inconvenient Truth about Palm Oil’s Role in the Haze

No doubt, the haze currently engulfing much of South-East Asia, including Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia is horrible –both for humans and their health, and the planet and her lungs.

This year it seems the world is literally burning from California to the Amazon to Russia. On September 18, Global Forest Watch had around 9,440 fires in Brazil, around 4,800 each in both Angola and Mozambique, around 4,000 in Zambia and approximately 3,100 in Indonesia.

Global citizens have a right to be angry.

But, what we can’t allow to happen is an alternative truth to be established by Fake News media in the West that only knows how to point the finger in a familiar direction in an attempt to identify a convenient culprit – Palm Oil – without doing any basic fact checking.

This blog is not an attempt to whitewash the haze. It is absolutely a defense of Palm Oil and establishing the facts about the root cause of the haze. For the last week, we have read bogus reports from the BBC to Times UK, to Reuters to the New York Times that incorrectly claim that there is “open burning in neighbouring Malaysia or “fires were set intentionally to make room for palm plantations.” At worst, this is false, and at best, the journalists are simply lazy and don’t have any intellectual grasp of what is actually taking place on the ground.

What’s sad is that we don’t see this type of terrible journalism from the failing New York Times when it comes to fires in California, but when it comes to a developing country like Malaysia, they apply the “Kavanaugh Standard” in their coverage.

Let’s go through some assumptions and claims made by journalists when it comes to Palm Oil and fires.

 

New York Times Claim #1: All oil palm plantations and farmers are the same

Fact: There are different kinds of oil palm plantations. There are large plantations run by large companies. These are generally thousands of hectares in size. They are well-organised and generally have a sustainability certification such as MSPO, RSPO or ISCC. They make up around 60 to 65% of palm production globally. They are subject to strict laws and regulations. In Malaysia and Indonesia, they are not able to expand significantly because of recent law changes.

There are smallholder farmers. These are farmers that have plantations between 2 and 50ha in size. They are generally family run and have a secure legal title to their land. They will occasionally grow other crops. A small number have sustainability certification. In Malaysia, these farmers are generally part of the FELDA or SALCRA government scheme, which gave farmers land and lifted millions of farmers out of poverty.

Then there are squatter farmers. These are farmers that don’t have secure title and are on plots of 2ha or less. These farmers will farm wherever there is what they consider to be vacant land. They are generally unaware of the legalities. These farmers are generally in Indonesia. Sometimes they are subject to land frauds by conmen offering fake land titles. There have been documented cases of coffee farmers clearing land in national parks in Indonesia.

It is this third category of farmer that is generally unaware of how illegal and destructive their actions are when it comes to fire. They use fire as a tool to both claim and clear land for crops, whether it is palm oil or other cash crops, including coffee, cassava and fruits.

 

New York Times Claim and Times UK,#2: Fires are started to ‘make room’ for oil palm plantations

Fact: The New York Times stated that, according to an Indonesian official, 80 per cent of the fires have been lit to “make room” for oil palm plantations. The official did not refer to specific crops, and the official was also pointing out that 85% of the fires were lit in forest areas, not palm oil concessions, and that therefore these fires have been lit illegally by squatter farmers.

The official was pointing out the illegality of the fires, and that the fire is being used to clear land for cash crops – of any kind.

This is a gross oversight and omission by the NYT that completely changes the meaning of the statement. Similar lazy journalism was applied by the UK’s The Times when it stated the fires were caused “mostly by convert huge areas of forest for rubber and palm oil.”

 

BBC Claim #1: The UK Government-funded mouthpiece claims that “open burning in neighbouring Malaysia” has led to “10 hotspots in the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak” suggesting that the Palm Oil plantation owners were openly clearing land by burning for new plantings.

Fact: This year, and in the recent haze event in 2015 for which better data is available, there were few fires in Malaysia. The forest area burned on an annual basis is small and often negligible. In 2012, for when the last FAO data is available, 500 ha was burned.

The fires spread for two reasons. The first is because of exceptionally dry seasons. Lower rainfall means there is a large amount of flammable material such as forest litter. The second is because of degraded peatland. Dry peat is a very flammable material that can smoulder for weeks. The fire can ‘jump’ from smallholder areas into concessions, effectively underground through degraded peat.

Moreover, the Miri Fire and Rescue Department in Sarawak confirmed recently that the ban on open burning is enforced in Sarawak.

BBC wants you to think that 10 hotposts in Sabah and Sarawak are a lot…

False. It’s worth pointing out that there are thousands of hotspots in other parts of the region and around the world right now. In Europe, more than 1,900 hotspots were accounted for on 16th September 2019 and in Australia, more than 1,000 hot spots in a single day – and yet, it is the 10 hotspots in Malaysia that the BBC focuses on: the very definition of Fake News.

 

BBC Claim #2: “Many farmers take advantage of the conditions to clear vegetation for palm oil, pulp and paper plantations using the slash-and-burn method”

Fact: In developing countries, fire is used as a way of claiming land that is assumed vacant. For many of these squatter farmers in Indonesia, this is vital, simply because titling and land tenure systems can be particularly weak.

Despite what is implied by NGOs and media reports, oil palm plantations are usually not the source of burning.  Fires will spread to areas that have been designated for plantations, either via fire spreading from smallholder areas, or because farmers have encroached onto existing concessions.

In 2013, just 20% of fires were reported as starting in oil palm areas. The remainder – the vast majority – were from natural forest areas, pulp and paper plantations, and other market crop areas.  The one major company that has been held responsible by Singaporean authorities for the haze in 2015 was a pulp and paper company – not a palm oil company.

There’s another problem with this BBC claim: farmers do not grow trees for pulp plantations. They are simply not profitable enough for farmers. They will grow any other number of trees for fruit or rubber, but pulp logs are not one of them. This exposes a high level of ignorance by the BBC’s reporters.

 

BBC Claim #3: “The problem has accelerated in recent years as more land has been cleared for expanding plantations for the lucrative palm oil trade”

Fact: This is inaccurate on a number of levels. In Malaysia, using fire for clearing land is illegal and is punished with jail sentences and heavy fines. There is a blanket prohibition on burning of peatlands.

Oil palm plantations are not expanding in Malaysia. The Malaysian Government announced last year that Malaysia halted expansion of oil palm plantations, effective immediately. This further protects Malaysia’s already expansive forest area.

Moreover, Malaysia has instituted world-leading environmental conservation efforts: including a cap on expansion of oil palm; implementing the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standard; and a commitment to preserve 50% of land as forest area, first made at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and still kept today. Malaysia’s commitment to environmental protection is as good as – if not superior to – the European Union.

 

Reuters Claim #1: “Malaysian palm oil companies are responsible for the haze in Indonesia”

Critics of the Malaysian industry claim it is responsible for the fires in Indonesia. Many major Malaysian plantation companies do invest in companies and other joint ventures in Indonesia. But major Malaysian companies do not use fire to clear land. ‘No burn’ policies are implemented across all plantations. Fires on plantation lands harm business operations as they result in criminal liability, crop damage, worker health problems and reputational problems. No palm oil company has an incentive to start fires.

Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) Chair Franki Anthony Dass confirmed that the fires were not caused by Malaysian companies or by their staff. This was also confirmed by the Minister of Primary Industries Ms. Teresa Kok.

Malaysians themselves are not angry about Palm Oil this year. They have learned the facts about the last major haze event, and that many of the problems lie in the fact that Indonesia simply does not have the resources to deal with the problem.

Written by The Oil Palm