The Oil Palm

Why MEP Marc Tarabella is Wrong About Palm Oil

Marc Tarabella, a Belgian Member of the European Parliament, has a long and undignified record demonising palm oil, and the 300,000 palm oil small farmers in Malaysia.

In 2013, he made statements that effectively accused palm oil and palm oil production of being environmentally destructive, harmful to human health and violating workers’ rights – despite producing no evidence, and clearly not being in possession of the facts.

In June of this year he was on the attack again, this time accusing the industry of exporting so-called ‘illegal’ products – including palm oil – to Europe.

Tarabella bases this accusation almost entirely a report by European Green NGO FERN – a report that was discredited earlier this year in detail. A rebuttal by FERN did not even attempt to address the substantive points of the critique; it simply re-stated their original propositions, with no attempt to engage in a debate. Making wild accusations and then ducking a debate is classic FERN playbook. It’s just a shame that MEP Tarabella is siding with the wild accusations, and not the facts.

Tarabella made a statement and asked a question to the European Commission and clearly appears to be operating in collaboration with FERN: “Can the Commission confirm or deny the accusation that some products imported into the EU do indeed result from illegal deforestation?”

One thing that FERN attempts to do in its original report is link the high number of land claims in Malaysian courts to illegality in the products being exported. Clearly, the fact that there is an open, transparent and effective legal system is something to be praised – rather than subject to attacks. The role of the courts is to adjudicate – does Tarabella really think that Belgium has no land disputes currently under legal review? So, perhaps, using his logic the EU should ban all Belgian products as well?

As the Oil Palm also pointed out, FERN’s report failed to mention that some plaintiff claims around land use in Malaysia also related to Malaysia’s main airport. Once again, no evidence is produced to justify the attack on Malaysia’s palm oil farmers.

Fortunately (and surprisingly) the response from the European Commission itself has been measured.

In August, the Commission’s response was simply to refer Tarabella to a large body of work completed by the Commission on the impact of EU consumption on deforestation. One of the reasons that the Commission referred to this document is because it considered the methodology used to be robust.

Some points that the study makes are:

  • In terms of ‘imported deforestation’ crop imports to the EU, Malaysian palm oil only makes up around 2 per cent of the total; this is compared with, say, Brazilian soybeans, which make up 41 per cent of the total;
  • Malaysian palm oil ranks far behind items such as Brazil nut imports, Paraguayan soybeans and Ghanan cocoa beans in terms of imported deforestation – a testament to Malaysia’s proven commitment to forest protection, as recognised by the United Nations;
  • On a national basis, Malaysia makes up around 4 per cent of the total, compared with 48 per cent out of Brazil, and 9 per cent out of Indonesia, followed by 5 per cent each out of Cameroon and Argentina – but this includes all crops, not just palm oil.

So there are three points that make Tarabella’s original demonising of Malaysian palm oil absurd.

First, Malaysia’s contribution to ‘imported deforestation’ to the EU is miniscule in comparison with other nations and other crops. The U.N., World Bank, and others have consistently recognised Malaysia’s commitment to forest protection. MEP Tarabella perhaps needs to read those reports.

Second, so-called ‘exported deforestation’ from Malaysia to the EU makes up just a small percentage of Malaysia’s total exports. Of the many policy proposals put forward by the EU to solve the ‘problem’ of imported deforestation is to introduce a licensing arrangement for exporters of certain products that include legality criteria. The problem with this approach is that it basically inserts the EU as a third party in trading arrangements, and in addition, it is failing dismally.

The EU has tried this with timber products across the world through its Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) arrangements. After nearly a decade and somewhere between EUR500 million and EUR1 billion, not a single FLEGT license has been issued.

Third, Tarabella holds a position as Vice-chair of the Delegation for relations with the countries of Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). If this is the position he holds, he’s clearly doing relations with ASEAN a massive disservice. Does anyone really wonder why trade talks between the EU and ASEAN have effectively stalled? If Tarabella is looking to reduce or harm trade relations between the EU and ASEAN countries, he seems to have found a good way to do this. However, if he is serious as Vice-Chair of ASEAN Delegation, he should focus on improving relations. Currently, he is failing dismally at this task.