TIME and again we hear of attempts and calls by certain countries to boycott Malaysian palm oil, both refined and crude, over too many reasons. Two most obvious reasons are claims of deforestation and unsustainability.
Critics in the West say that we have been cutting down too many trees over the years, clearing virgin jungles and rainforest. They say this has given rise to numerous problems for the climate, environment, habitat and indigenous people living in the forest.
Human activities have contributed to the emission of greenhouse gases or CO2 through the burning of oil, coal and gas, as well as deforestation. Malaysia is not the only one and ironically, the Western countries started clearing land some 200 years ago for plantations and industrialisation. And now, they are throwing the ball into our court and telling the world to boycott our palm oil.
Critics in the West also claim that methods used in oil palm plantations are not sustainable. They say palm oil must be sustainable and that land conversion for agricultural use must not adversely impact the environment.
They claim that we have not been complying with good agricultural practices which form one important pillar of sustainable cultivation. With the exception of smallholders who admittedly do not comply with the requirements, it is good to know that the “big boys” of the palm oil industry in the country have long started with good agricultural practices. Oil palm is now grown only on fallow and agriculturally usable land in an effort to minimise the risk of carbon emission.
Pressing on, the critics want our palm oil to be certified according to international standards, not just sustainable production. Well and good, we adhere to the demands made by the Europeans and it has been made clear to us that it is the responsibility of governments in the producer countries to follow suit. Producers and consumers throughout the supply chain (from nurseries to estates, mills, refineries, processors and manufacturers) must play their part. The funny thing is, some countries in Asia like China and Pakistan don’t give a hoot whether the palm oil is certified or not. But they are being pressured as well by these powerful countries and NGOs.
We listen and we are still listening. We understand the demand. Demand for sustainability must be met and dealt with to enable Europe and other wealthy countries to use certified palm oil. Towards this end, I spoke to some people in the palm oil industry, including those involved in certification. Some say certification of sustainable palm oil is always seen as just another requirement to gain access to the European market. It sometimes feels like a trade barrier to protect their own oil like sunflower and rapeseed oil, among others.
It is imposed on big brands like cosmetic and detergent manufacturers after severe pressure from international NGOs. Manufacturers without a choice then latch on to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to understand more about the criteria and practice that they could put into producing sustainable products.
That’s not all. Over the years, various certification schemes have been set up to ensure sustainable cultivation of oil palm and production of palm oil. Apart from RSPO, which is the foremost authority, there are schemes like Rainforest Alliance, International Sustainability & Carbon Certification and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials.
Certification schemes are good for the industry, although they are not seen by palm oil producers as a means of business improvement. Such schemes will continue to create greater transparency in the value chain, including imposing a variety of standards with the intention of reducing rainforest clearance, restricting use of dangerous pesticides and human violations in the palm oil industry.
In Malaysia, we have the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO), a certification council. It is working hard to implement processes to review standards. Its aim is to finalise a revised standard by this year.
One criterion imposed by MSPO is that all landowners, big or small, must get themselves certified. In November last year, Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok warned oil palm farmers without MSPO certification from Jan 1, 2020 would see their licences revoked. Action can be taken against non-MSPO producers with plantations of 100 acres and above.
It appears one thing is taking place here. The smallholdings, operated by families with foreigners helping out in the estates, will lose out. I do not think they are even contemplating getting their processes certified anytime soon. They are the ones who most of the time get illegal foreign workers to harvest and maintain the estates through the use of dangerous pesticides.
Maybe it’s true what certain human rights organisations have been saying all along about violations in our palm oil industry. These independent smallholders are least bothered about certification. While bigger plantations are adhering to regulations, we are seeing smallholders resorting to trafficking in forced labour, including children of foreign labourers.
In trips to some of these estates over the years, I have seen foreign labourers living in deplorable conditions.
Their workplace was unsafe and unhealthy; their passports were retained by their employers as ‘insurance’ to prevent them from running away.
C’est la vie.
The writer is a former NST journalist, now a film scriptwriter whose penchant is finding new food haunts in the country